The world's most high-profile diplomatic post becomes vacant next year and the campaign to succeed Kofi Annan as U.N. Secretary-General is well under way. From U.N. headquarters, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports several influential countries, including the United States, are challenging the long-standing tradition which would dictate that this time the job should go to an Asian.
Asian diplomats say it is only fair that the next U.N. chief comes from their region. After all, they say, Asia is home to three out of every five people in the world. Only one Asian, Burma's U Thant, has ever held the secretary-general's job, and he retired nearly 35 years ago.
Philippines U.N. Ambassador Lauro Baja says it is time Asia has another turn.
"If you asks the Philippines from Asia, it is Asia's turn," said Lauro Baja. "It is Asia's turn. It is in the logical sequence of geographic entitlements."
Two Asian candidates have already been put forward for consideration. Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai is considered a frontrunner after receiving the endorsement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
He has been actively campaigning for the post for the past year.
The other is Sri Lankan peace negotiator Jayantha Dhanapala. Jordan's U.N. ambassador Prince Zeid al-Hussein has also been mentioned as a possible candidate.
But in recent weeks, several non-Asian names have been floated, including former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski and Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga who, if selected, would be the first woman secretary-general.
Both are from Eastern Europe, a region never before represented in the top U.N. post.
These names have been accompanied by suggestions from American and European diplomats that it may be time to break away from the tradition of regional rotation.
Washington's U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has served notice that the candidate selection process will not be limited to Asia.
"We do not accept that there is an inevitable geographic rotation in selection of secretaries general or other high-level positions," he said. "What we are looking for on a global basis is the best-qualified person to be the next secretary general and we're already actively involved in consultation on that point."
At least one other ambassador from among the five permanent Security Council members, Britain's Emyr Jones Parry, has made statements similar to Ambassador Bolton's.
The U.N. charter says the choice of a secretary-general is made by the Security Council, then approved by the General Assembly. But in practice, the selection is done through private consultations among the five permanent Council members, all of whom have veto power to disqualify a candidate.
The composition of the Council would seem to favor European candidates. Two of the previous seven secretaries-general have been from Europe. Moreover, five of the 15 Council seats next year will be held by European Union countries, including permanent members Britain and France.
But two other permanent members, China and Russia, have made clear they prefer to stick with tradition. Nevertheless, Russia's U.N. envoy Andrey Denisov, who will soon become his country's principal deputy foreign minister, admits anything can happen in the selection process.
"It is not written, it is tradition, it is not written rule, so that is why everything can happen, but anyway if we cannot break tradition it is better to follow traditions," he said.
But following tradition is one thing; agreeing on a candidate acceptable to all is another.
Veteran U.N. observer and Columbia University professor Edward Luck says while Asian candidates will get the first look, even China is likely to conclude that finding an Asian candidate acceptable to all poses a difficult challenge.
"China has said it wants to have an Asian candidate, but I can imagine lots of Asian candidates who would not be Beijing's choice," said Mr. Luck.
Professor Luck and other experts agree that abandoning the tradition of rotating the top U.N. job is likely to disappoint Asians. Some are saying the time has come for a more transparent selection process.
During his term as Washington's U.N. ambassador from 1989 to 1992, Thomas Pickering took part in the selection of former secretary-general Boutros-Boutros Ghali. In a telephone interview, Ambassador Pickering suggested that a panel of eminent persons be named to nominate and review candidates.
"Were they to change the tradition, one way to ease the concern would be to create through the Security Council, a nominating committee, maybe of seven or so former heads of states, one from each continent, to put names in the hopper that the Security Council could consider," he explained. "It would give the Security Council an opportunity to ensure that since all continents are represented in the nominating committee, it would not be a question of excluding one region at the expense of others."
Diplomats and observers all declined to speculate on the candidates or their prospects. They noted that the selection process still has a long way to go.
One veteran said the experience of recent years might suggest that at this early stage, it is probable that the name of the eventual nominee still has not been heard.