- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

NEW YORK — Ten Southeast Asian nations yesterday endorsed Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai to succeed Kofi Annan as the next U.N. secretary-general, an early and unusually public announcement that likely will pre-empt other candidates from declaring their interest.

The foreign ministers and ambassadors of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met at U.N. headquarters to formally endorse Mr. Surakiart, a controversial figure at home and in the region.

“The United Nations is such an important organization,” a beaming Mr. Surakiart told The Washington Times as he left the ASEAN ministers meeting yesterday morning. “Of course I am honored” by the endorsement.

A confident man with a regal, almost beefy bearing, Mr. Surakiart, 46, is a former oil company executive and powerful former finance minister who negotiated intellectual property rights treaties with Washington and coped with the collapse of the Thai economy.

Like Mr. Annan, whose term expires at the end of 2006, Mr. Surakiart is U.S.-educated. He has a law degree from Harvard and a master’s from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

However, U.S. officials in New York and Washington stood by a longstanding practice of not commenting in advance on other region’s candidates for such posts.

“We’ll come to it when we get to it,” said a senior State Department official. “We keep our endorsements secret anyway.”

Thailand, an influential government in Southeast Asia, has lobbied hard for its foreign minister, working the diplomatic channels at home, in regional capitals and at the United Nations itself.

Mr. Surakiart’s endorsement effectively cuts off the rumored candidacies of a number of distinguished applicants from the region, including Singapore’s former U.N. ambassador and author Kishore Mahbubani, former Philippine Foreign Minister Domingo Siazon, and former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas.

Like many senior U.N. positions, the position of secretary-general rotates among the world’s major regions. That pattern was disrupted when Africa received an extra turn after Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali was denied the traditional second term, but it is commonly agreed that it will be Asia’s turn next.

The Asia group is the broadest regional grouping, comprising nearly three dozen nations stretching from Jordan to Japan.

Mr. Surakiart’s ASEAN endorsement does not pre-empt candidates from the Middle East or Gulf region, nor from Central Asia or the Indian subcontinent. Nor will it necessarily block a challenge from Eastern Europe, whose leaders feel they have a claim to field the next secretary-general.

“There are several strong candidates from our part of Europe,” Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly session begun last week.

“There is nothing in the charter that says it’s Asia’s turn. The geographical rotation is a wheel of fortune that will stop at our house, too.”

Mr. Surakiart speaks no French, potentially a roadblock in an organization that is one of the two working languages. Paris, acutely aware that French is slipping into secondary importance, has always demanded a fluent secretary-general.

The selection of the U.N. secretary-general is a multistage event conducted behind closed doors over a period of a year or more.

It begins with the nomination of candidates from the region involved — in this case Asia — usually after a period of lobbying and consultation in which groups of nations join forces to advance their favorites.

The council members then debate the merits of the candidates in private, with most of the early sifting falling to the five permanent, or veto-wielding members. Once those five have agreed on a candidate, the rest of the council usually concurs.

A single name is then sent to the U.N. General Assembly, where the entire U.N. membership votes in secret to accept or reject the candidate.

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