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Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the United States, 1989-1993. Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor's Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Canada has been focused, of late, on its prospects for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2021. But a more immediate and more important UN issue is the selection of a successor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a choice that could have a great impact on the world body's relevance and performance.

Competence, dynamism and decisiveness are not high among the criteria for selection, unfortunately. The candidate, who is chosen by the 15-member Security Council in a series of complicated secret ballots, will be voted on by the full 193-member General Assembly (likely in October) and take up the position in January. In view of the ingrained rigidity among the three most significant council players – the United States, China and Russia – the lowest common denominator usually prevails in the selection, leaving the institution with little real scope for boldness or reform.

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The track record of the UN and its various agencies has been spotty – the burgeoning refugee crisis and flawed peacekeeping efforts being the most disturbing examples of late. World leaders adopted a lofty declaration on the refugee issue last week, at the start of this year's assembly session, but it is non-binding with no specific numbers for resettlement nor for additional funding. Mr. Ban's plaintive call for a 10-per-cent annual reduction of the more than 65 million displaced people around the world fell on deaf ears. Fewer than 1 per cent of the total refugee population may be resettled this year, while the UN refugee commission struggles to manage the flood with less than 50 per cent of the necessary funding at its disposal.

Many European countries are already overwhelmed by the influx to date and wary of testing the tolerance of their citizens any further. President Barack Obama's attempt to raise the U.S. intake has no traction in Congress and tends to be drowned out by the anti-refugee sentiments evinced in the presidential campaign. Canada, which has taken in more than 30,000 Syrian refugees, is so far immune from such backlash and is signalling a willingness to do and spend more. But that is proving to be a relatively lonely gesture.

The problems at the UN are deep-seated, ranging from incompetence to malfeasance and, in some instances, gross misconduct. The UN's internal audit division has chronicled many of the more egregious violations of rules, to no avail. The lack of accountability is endemic, masking colossal mismanagement. The bureaucracy is widely seen as bloated and incapable or unwilling to provide expertise or respond in a timely fashion to global crises often, as on the Ebola crisis, leaving it to one or a few UN members to fill the gap.

In the straw-poll vetting of the top candidates to date to succeed Mr. Ban, whose term ends on Dec. 31, Antonio Guterres, former prime minister of Portugal leads the pack despite the fact that he was severely criticized by the UN's auditor for mishandling millions when he served as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As is the UN custom, senior appointments are usually determined by regional or national quotas not talent or competence.

Another UN custom is that the selection of a secretary-general usually rotates among regional blocks. It is technically Eastern Europe's turn, no doubt why three Eastern European candidates are in the running. The current favourite seems to be the Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak, who was a Czech diplomat before the Velvet Revolution.

Another is Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, who now leads UNESCO and is reportedly Russia's preferred candidate. Running against the rotation custom is Argentina's Foreign Minister, Susana Malcorra, who has been Mr. Ban's chief of staff and is reportedly the current U.S. favourite.

If capability to shape reform and take decisive action were the objective, the strongest candidate might well be the third East European, Vuk Jeremic, the Harvard-trained Foreign Minister of Serbia. Mr. Jeremic led efforts to unseat Slobodan Milosevic's rule in Belgrade at the turn of this century and is a strong proponent of genuine UN reform. But as the backroom haggling intensifies, his pro-Western leanings will undoubtedly count against him.

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The selection of the next secretary-general could be a litmus test of the ideals represented in the UN Charter and the UN's less-inspiring record of performance. Without someone of strong character at the helm, a sustained period of mediocrity is the most likely outcome.

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