Ten of the twelve candidates for UN Secretary General participated in a “debate” last night jointly hosted by al Jazeera and the President of the UN General Assembly. “Debate” is in quotes only because the candidates never directly engaged each other. But for observers of the American political system, the format would look quite familiar: the candidates gave opening and closing statements, and in between took questions from the Al Jazeera moderators and audience members in the UN Hall.
This made for legitimately interesting television and — for the first time– put the candidates on the spot to answer questions about controversial and topical global issues.
The ten candidates were broken up into two groups of five, with each group facing about an hour of questioning. The audience consisted of UN Member states and members of civil society. Their questions were somewhat predicable for those of us who have been following this process. The Hungarian ambassador, for example, asked a question about leadership style; the Bahamian representative asked about the effects of climate change on small Island states; a Senegalese representative asked about the perception that Africans were unfairly targeted by the International Criminal Court.
But moderators James Bays and Folly Bah Thibault did take some opportunities to press the candidates on topical issues, including South Sudan, Syria and Haiti among other issues.
Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the night occurred when moderator James Bays asked the five candidates in the second panel to raise their hand if they believe the UN should apologize to the people of Haiti for introducing a deadly cholera strain to the country. Only Christiana Figueres raised her hand, though she declined to say whether the UN should pay compensation to the victims.
Another standout moment was when Vesna Pusic, in her closing remarks, addressed the question that it was time for a woman to be Secretary General of the UN. “I happen to be a woman, but this is not enough,” she said. “I also happen to be a feminist, and this is important.” The room erupted in applause.
In all, it was a good, healthy vetting of the candidates.
Sparks never flew. Jabs were not punched. And there were no real “gaffes.” Still, this was an interesting format to watch the Secretary General candidates think on their feet, show a bit of their personality, respond to thoughtful questions, and demonstrate their communication skills. And while there was no clear winners or losers, this format did show that that this is an impressive bunch.