Danilo Turk
World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons Credit: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Common

For all of its 70 years, the United Nations has chosen its leader, the Secretary-General, in proverbial smoke-filled backrooms. The 15-member Security Council considers and votes on a candidate in secret, with the five permanent members—Russia, France, China, Great Britain, and the United States—having veto power. It then presents the candidate to the General Assembly for a vote of ratification. But member states have grown restive under this closed and autocratic system. So in choosing the successor to current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose term is over at the end of this year, the Security Council has agreed, under pressure, to open up the process, at least a bit.

Unlike in recent years, candidates who have been presented by member states will actually campaign publicly for the job. They will address the General Assembly and participate in forums co-sponsored by the Guardian newspaper, the think tank New America, and other organizations. For the first time, candidates will take questions from the press and have their curricula vitae posted online.

Nine applicants—four of them women—are currently under consideration, but more may apply between now and July, when the Security Council begins to consider its options. Yes, the Security Council will still have the final say. But at least in theory, the public vetting of the candidates will inform its choice.

One of those candidates is Dr. Danilo Türk, former President of the Republic of Slovenia. Türk was the first Slovenian Permanent Representative to the United Nations and has served in that institution in various capacities for three decades. He is currently the board chair of the Washington D.C.-based Global Fairness Initiative, a not-for-profit NGO whose mission is to create sustainable and equitable development for the world’s working poor. Türk recently spoke to Washington Monthly editor Matt Connolly and publisher Diane Straus. Here is an edited version of their conversation.

WM: Welcome to Washington, Mr. President. Please tell us a little about your campaign for UN Secretary-General and why you are running?

DT: I chose to run for three reasons: one is my experience, the second is my commitment to the UN, and the third is my vision for the organization’s future. I have been working with or in the United Nations for over thirty years. My first international conferences were about equality of women, in Mexico City in 1975. I pushed to develop indicators to measure the progress we made in the implementation of the right to an adequate standard of health, the right to work—which didn’t exist then.

When Slovenia became independent, I became Slovenian ambassador to the United Nations. There, on the Security Council, I worked with Madeleine Albright on various crises like Libya, like Iraq, Kosovo. I chaired the sanctions committee on Libya, after the Lockerbie bombing

In 2000, I was invited by [former Secretary-General] Kofi Annan to serve as his assistant for political affairs, which I did for five years. After that stint, I went back to Slovenia, and was elected president. When that ended, I decided to do interesting things like running for the UN Secretary-General’s office.

I think that the UN is a very meaningful organization. But there will of course be a big debate on how to proceed further.

WM: How would you like it to proceed further?

DT: The UN is an organization of governments, and that obviously cannot change. It does, however, need to develop new mechanisms of cooperation because the world has become more complicated. Many projects require very close cooperation, for example peacekeeping in Africa has to be done with the African Union—whose soldiers come from many countries. And the UN has to develop better communication with civil society, the business community and academia.

One of my priorities is sustainable development. I would focus on how the UN can develop a more assertive advisory function, in this regard, while partnering with the International Monetary Fund, with the World Bank, [and] with the World Trade Organization.

One thing the UN clearly needs, that it currently doesn’t have, is a crisis management capacity for dealing with huge epidemics like Ebola. The World Health Organization functions mainly as a technical advisory organization. And we need either a separate organization, or a technical, emergency arm of WHO which would be prepared to mobilize quickly [and be] capable of [everything from] logistics to medical assistance to development of new drugs. The Ebola crisis vividly demonstrated this.

But we can have the opposite problem: in earlier epidemics, like the SARS outbreak for example, too much was done too quickly. It’s also not good, because that epidemic didn’t develop to the extent that was feared. And the WHO was criticized for having contributed to the panic. It is a balancing act. I would like to see something like an emergency operational arm, which is perhaps part of WHO but has its operational independence, or perhaps it’s a separate organization. A model for this would be the World Food Programme (WFP) which is an emergency organization, and a very effective one. They come into situations like severe droughts or wars and provide the necessary help. They often partner with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s missions.

WM: What brings you to Washington?

DT: I am in Washington D.C. to participate in a conference organized by the U.S. Water Partnership, which studies strategies for dealing with water issues—particularly global shortages which have can endanger civic peace.

We have a global water crisis –water availability, water accessibility, water quality. They are all becoming big problems. Some of the most dramatic effects of this are already being felt. Take the crisis in Syria: it started several years ago with a drought and a huge migration of people from rural areas to the coastline, which added to social tensions, resulted in turmoil, which of course the government tried to stop by force. It was unquestionably a factor in the civil war.

Wars don’t always start for political reasons. Some happen as a result of, economic, social pressures, and this is an example of that. Others, like the war in Darfur, are explicitly about water. During that conflict, wells were deliberately poisoned—water became a weapon of war. It is very disturbing, and we must have an international response. This is why a group of states have put together a panel on water and peace. We are examining strategies we can recommend to the United Nations, to governments, and to policymakers generally.

We cannot pretend that we have a comprehensive strategy for every such situation. We have several priorities, the principal one being the strengthening of trans-border cooperation on water issues. There are 40 or so such arrangements in the world currently, and they are quite successful. Cooperation over the Senegal River, for instance, began over three decades ago amidst political tensions between four neighboring countries in West Africa-Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania and Guinea, all of which border the Senegal River. But Senegalese President Senghor recognized that it would make sense to put together a cooperative agreement, in which all these nations would share the river for electricity and irrigation. This agreement has gradually become an important stabilizing factor both politically and socially.

Today, 148 countries are involved in trans-boundary water courses, but there are 260 or so water basins which lie across borders and where no agreements exist.

For example, now, when war ends in Syria, which it hopefully will at some point, there will be an important question of how to manage the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris, the two rivers which cross Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In the absence of an existing agreement—and the political chaos – ISIS has stepped in and actually taken advantage of that and has expanded through those river areas, taken control of dams, here again using water as a weapon of war.
But you cannot impose a single template on every situation. Each nation has unique needs.

WM: What’s the best way to balance…making recommendations and trying to help with fostering local empowerment so it doesn’t seem like you’re a foreign actor coming in and telling a country or people what to do with their water?

DT: First of all, I think is sharing our own experiences. In January of this year, I went to Dakar, Senegal, where I had been invited to chair a panel on water agreements. I was very aware that we couldn’t come in as a superior authority; we were facilitators who improve communications between the parties seeking to make an agreement. As such, I was very aware of the key role local water experts play in this sort of discussion. Not least because they are key to any discussions in other parts of Africa, indeed the world. And it is important to communicate our shared experiences.

I was invited to speak primarily because of Slovenia’s role as a signatory of the Sava River Basin Agreement. The Sava River, which borders all the nations of the former Yugoslavia, is a tributary of the Danube—which itself has a 160-year-old tradition of water cooperation! After the end of the Bosnian War—in which Slovenia was not a combatant—all the former enemies came together on river management before they could agree on much else. It shows the potential for peace and regional stabilization through the creation of a single river management system.

We had an amusing experience during the negotiations: in the former Yugoslavia, there was one language spoken –Serbo-Croatian—the same in all countries but with regional differences, naturally. With the collapse of Yugoslavia the question became which name to use for the language we would speak. So we decided to call it the “Sava language.” The name of the river became the name of the language.

Political sensitivities after wars are incredible. We are very aware that it is enormously important for local people on the ground to feel ownership of these agreements. I mean each region has its own specific needs, and these can be met only through involvement of people in that region. But then again it is good to have a global perspective which helps us see what works and what doesn’t.

WM: Let’s talk about the Global Fairness Initiative. Are there any projects going on there that we should know about?

DT: The Global Fairness Initiative is about innovative, market-based solutions to ensure fairness and transparency in development. Market economies are the economies of our time but they are not, in and of themselves, always fair. If economic development is not fair, irrespective of how much wealth it produces, it creates instability, so fairness should be an ingredient in every development policy.

One of our projects in the making is a conference in June on youth unemployment and policies to address this problem, which is huge in every part of the world, including advanced countries. We hope to gradually work out an agenda, and possibly also document solutions that might come out of this conference.

In the European Union, the industrialization and moving of jobs to China has produced problems. We have very high rates of youth unemployment in most of Europe, but countries which have better balance, better policies, don’t have that issue.

Germany is a perfect example. They have always insisted on keeping their manufacturing production in Germany, keeping their system of apprenticeship and local production as key to economic development. They haven’t changed that despite market opportunities in China. They have found ways of moving part of their production to China together with some of the retired senior managers. There are automobile factories in China which employ many senior managers and retired engineers from Germany.

Other success stories are Switzerland, and most of Scandinavia. But the policy mix has not been the right one everywhere. Eight years ago the European Union as a whole adopted the Lisbon Strategy, which relied on the idea that all our economies would be knowledge-based. And it sounded very good you know. Heavy industry would be moved elsewhere. And now we realize that didn’t help everybody. For countries like Spain, Portugal, it’s very difficult to figure out what would reduce youth unemployment, which is very high.

In Slovenia, we are learning the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises because they have proven to be very resilient. Of course Slovenia is small, it has 2 million people, so in our case this is a part of the solution. And also we are very much expert-oriented, we are closely linked to the German manufacturers. Now we produce our own automobile parts, which now go all over the world.

We haven’t deindustrialized our economy to the extent which would create a big drama, but we have our problems. We have a mismatch between the educational system and labor market, we produce students who cannot easily get jobs. There’s a lot of precarious part time work, without benefits. It is a huge burden for young people.

Full employment and issues of labor have been neglected in the Millennium Development Goals, which the UN first passed in September 2000. International focus is on reduction of poverty and basic needs, including maternal health, safe drinking water, and things like this. And this is absolutely a priority. But if one thinks about the development vision for the next long-term period, say up until 2030, you have to include labor. It won’t work otherwise. So what we’re doing may be small-scale, but it is really quite central.

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