INTERVIEW: Time is right for me to pursue top post at UN: Ex-Slovenian president Turk

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 9 Mar 2016

UN secretary-general hopeful and former Slovenian president Danilo Turk spoke to Ahram Online about his political and diplomatic career, and his bid for the United Nation's top spot

Danilo Turk
Danilo Turk (AP)

The time is now to pursue the top job at the UN after having worked within the organisation for years and having had accumulated diverse political experience, said Danilo Turk, former president of Slovenia, making the case for why he should assume the post of UN secretary-general.

Turk recently spoke to Ahram Online during a visit to Cairo this week where he sought to offer his vision for the international organisation and gain Egypt's support for his nomination.

An expert on law and international relations, Turk had originally pursued an academic career and human rights activism before opting for politics.

He was partner to the founding of the new republic of Slovenia in 1991, which gained independence in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union near the end of the 20th century.

Turk's association with the UN came as early as 1982, when he became a member of the UN working group on the right to development.

During his time at the UN headquarters he was involved with many files including fighting discrimination, the promotion of economic, social and cultural rights as well as political consultation.

In the summer of 1992, Turk was appointed as Slovenia’s first ambassador to the UN before being chosen by secretary-general Kofi Annan a few years later for the crucial job of assistant secretary-general for political affairs.

For over five years, his tasks at the UN focused on analytical and advisory activities concerning crisis situations around the world, including in the Balkans – particularly Kosovo and Macedonia – Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, East Timor, Colombia, Haiti and Venezuela.

In November 2007, Turk was elected as the third president of Slovenia until December 2012, after which he resumed his international role in promoting rights.

Speaking from the Cairo residence of his country’s ambassador to Egypt, Turk told Ahram Online that much more work is still in the pipeline for the international organisation – with so many conflict areas and so many development challenges.

This is why, he argued, he chose to pursue the job – because it is not an easy time for the UN.

“The fact of the matter is that times were never easy for the UN; but this is the time for me to present my candidature after years of work within the UN itself and on the international political scene in general,” he said.

Turk knows that it is not an easy diplomatic battle that he is up for, especially with more and more voices across the world suggesting that the time is ripe to have the first woman UN secretary-general, with proposed names for the job including former heads of state in Europe and South America.

“I am not sure if gender is the issue here; after all, in my opinion the time has always and will always be right for women to assume top jobs, including at the UN for sure; but when the countries of the world choose the new UN secretary-general they would not be doing so in a gender-based approach – not strictly anyway,” he argued.

According to Turk, the choice of Christine LaGarde, the chief of the IMF, was made on merit and not as a sign of recognition for the right of women to pursue top jobs in international organisations.

Turk said that he has three points that would make his candidacy strong: “commitment, experience and vision.”

Turk’s vision for the evolution of the role of the UN – an unending and ever-so-taxing project, as he says – is related to the prevention of armed conflicts and the promotion of peace and innovation in the pursuit of development and an improved structure for human rights.

Conflict management and prevention requires serious political leadership, “and I think the UN could surely do more in this respect,” he said.

In the case of Libya, which he had worked on during the years of sanctions under the rule of late president Muammar Qaddafi, Turk is convinced that the mission of the UN, “which has been doing a lot,” could be strengthened and its cooperation with key neighbouring countries could be upgraded, “especially in Egypt and Tunisia.”

On Syria, Turk sees a larger and more determined role for the UN, which has already played a crucial rule in putting together the basis for the recently concluded cessation of hostilities.

Of course, the UN could put more effort into encouraging the relevant parties to end their war in Syria, “but ultimately it is the warring parties themselves that have to come to an agreement.”

The role of the UN in Syria, for this UN secretary-general hopeful, is not about imposing a deal – because this has never been the role of the international organisation – but rather in making a deal possible and making sure that if a deal is reached, it would be honoured.

However, Turk stresses that the UN should try all it can to make sure that conflicts are pre-emptively prevented, rather than letting them start and having to work to end them.

“Timely prevention was recently quite helpful in the case of Burundi, for example,” he argued.

Turk is convinced that during the past few decades, the UN has produced impressive and holistic documents on matters related to development; from the millennium goals to the development vision for 2030.

What the UN needs to do is not necessarily produce more documents, but rather make sure that these agreed-upon visions are effectively implemented, and to do so the UN could “provide countries with useful advice.”

“Further work is needed for sure,” he argued.

On the human rights front, Turk believes that the UN has already made progress with the introduction of the job of the Higher Commissioner for Human Rights and the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

However, he is convinced that there is considerably large room for improvement in the organisation “by having stronger and more effective missions on the ground with appropriate mandates and efficient implementation.”

There have been success stories for the UN missions in promoting human rights in countries like Nepal and Colombia, where the international body helped the governments adopt human rights-conscious policies.

Turk argued that what could better help the job of the UN in promoting improved observance of human rights is for the organisation to have more effective and comprehensive reporting bodies.

A single supervisory body, he argued, could make sure that the UN keeps an eye on countries' parallel paths of development and human rights.

Meanwhile, Turk agreed that the UN would have to work more to find the best answer possible to the question of how to implement the fundamental concept of "the right to protect," which is related to the call of humanitarian intervention that was made during the last decades of the 20th century in the international organisation.

He insists that this is not just the job of the UN, but also of the member-states, “whose support was essential in helping the right to protect in the case of Kenya.”

Creating closer understanding among the UN member-states is something that has to be worked for, especially with the evolving nature of the world order, which has gone from one phase to the other in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War in favour of a uni-polar world that is now again evolving into a more multi-polar world, Turk argued.

In this respect, Turk says that there is much more coordination among the member-states on the ideas that had during the past couple of decades been proposed for the reform of the UN.

This is still not likely to be an easy job, argued Turk, given the political complexities of the world situation, but work has to be done given that the reform of the UN is crucial to enhancing its capacity to pursue issues of conflict prevention, development, human rights and also dialogue of civilisation.

A more effective UN system, he said, is also essential for better management of some of the chronic problems like the Palestinian issue and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The more efficient UN system would also be more capable of better administering targeted sanctions, when need be, in order to secure that the collective will of the international community is not shrugged off by any one country – as in the case of North Korea, for example.

This system could also help design effective sanctions through fully pursuing and adequately accommodating the opinion of relevant countries – as in the case of China on North Korea.

Targeted sanctions could work when they are subject to the consent of the overwhelming majority of the UN.

This worked to an extent in the case of Iran and facilitated the deal that was brokered last year. It also worked before with Libya, forcing Tripoli to hand over those accused of the 1988 bombing of the PAN AM flight over Lockerbie. Sanctions  also helped end the apartheid system in South Africa.

The mandate of the UN secretary-general in the coming years, said Turk, will have to focus on promoting this hard-to-reach consensus among member-states on how far the UN should go in this or that specific case.

Considerable support for this mandate would have to come from the US, “which has always been a very important player in the UN” and that is currently going through its own presidential elections.

“Whoever the next US president is will have to understand the important role of the US in the UN and vice versa,” he stated.

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