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UN Debate Ends, Focus Switches to Search for New Secretary-General


The annual U.N. General Assembly debate has ended in New York, clearing the way for the final stage of the process of selecting a new secretary-general. The field of candidates for the job of diplomat-in-chief remains wide open.

The 61st General Assembly debate is likely to be remembered more for theater than substance. While world leaders addressed issues of war, poverty and disease, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez stole headlines with a personal attack on President Bush.

Speaking through an interpreter, he called Mr. Bush "the devil".

"Yesterday, the devil came here, right here, and it smells of sulfur still today," he said.

Chavez received warm applause as he left the rostrum to continue his campaign to win Venezuela a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Veteran diplomatic observers say Venezuela's candidacy has strong support from the bloc of mostly developing countries that comprise the majority of U.N. member states.

With the annual debate over, the focus of attention at the U.N. headquarters turns to the selection of the world body's next leader. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's term in office expires at the end of the year.

The choice is made by the 15-member Security Council, which by tradition submits the name of a single candidate to the General Assembly for approval. Two informal polls among Security Council members have provided few clues as to who the next secretary-general might be.

If the U.N. tradition of geographical rotation is followed, this is Asia's turn to lead the world body, and six of the seven announced candidates are Asian men. The seventh is an Eastern European woman, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. All seven are actively campaigning for the job.

South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki-Moon, is considered the frontrunner. He has scored highest in preliminary polls. In a speech to the General Assembly last week, he spoke of his vision for the world body's future.

"If the U.N.'s primary task in the 20th century was to curb inter-state conflict, its core mandate in the new century must be to strengthen states and to preserve the inter-state system in the face of new challenges," he said.

The field of hopefuls also includes the Indian author and U.N. Undersecretary General for Public Information Shashi Tharoor, Thailand's former Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai, Jordan's U.N. ambassador, Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the Sri Lankan diplomat and former Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Jayantha Dhanapala and former Afghan finance minister, Ashraf Ghani.

Members of the Security Council who will choose the eventual nominee have been tight-lipped about whom they might favor. But when asked about the South Korean candidate, America's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said he knows Mr. Ban well, and respects him.

"I've known him for over 15 years, and think very highly of him," Bolton said.

Bolton has been a harsh U.N. critic at a time when the world body has been rocked by scandals, including corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food program and sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers. Many U.S. lawmakers have blamed the failures on weak leadership.

Bolton says Washington's chief criterion for a new secretary-general is that he or she has strong administrative skills.

"The charter tells us what the job description is," he said. "The secretary-general is the chief administrative officer of the organization. And we want someone who will follow that job description. Chief Administrative Officer, which implies clearly that the job of the secretary general is to administer the secretariat. So that is the ideal candidate from our point of view."

Bolton and China's U.N. ambassador, Wang Guangya, have been pushing for an early decision, but have encountered opposition from other Council members who have asked for more time to consider their choices. Bolton told reporters this week he is ready to vote.

"It's now late September. It's going to be early October next week. It's time to come to a decision, and the reason for that timing is we want the next secretary-general to have a full and adequate transition period," he said.

Despite the U.S. and Chinese push for an early vote, veteran U.N. watchers caution against predicting the final outcome. They note that past secretaries-general have sometimes been last-minute compromises. They also point out that according to the rules, it is never too late for new candidates to enter the race.

There is no firm date by which a new U.N. chief must be chosen, though Secretary-General Annan's term expires December 31.

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