United Nations (United States) (AFP) - For the first time in the United Nations' 70-year history, candidates vying to become secretary-general will make their pitch for the job to world governments in hearings beginning next week.
The four men and four women campaigning to become the world's top diplomat will each go before the General Assembly for two hours to lay out their vision and answer questions from member-states and civil society.
The unprecedented hearings are part of a broader push for more transparency in the selection of who will succeed Ban Ki-moon on January 1, 2017.
"We have decided collectively to open up the race," French Ambassador Francois Delattre said of the new selection process.
The hearings "are important and new, and I do plan to attend to listen to each of the candidates," he told AFP.
For decades, the selection of the UN chief has been the purview of the five permanent Security Council members -- Britain, France, China, Russia and the United States -- in a process kept mostly behind closed doors.
But the General Assembly in September voted to lift some of the secrecy surrounding the process, asking candidates to send a formal letter of application, present their resumes and appear at hearings.
Among the declared candidates are UNESCO chief Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, former New Zealand prime minister and head of the UN Development Programme Helen Clark, and former high commissioner for refugees Antonio Guterres of Portugal.
- Time to shine -
With little time left before the Security Council begins a series of straw polls to pick a nominee, diplomats say the race remains wide open.
The selection process will begin in July and several rounds of polling will take place until September, when the 15-member council will submit one nominee to the General Assembly, which is expected to endorse the choice.
British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said the hearings are shaping up as a first test for the candidates.
"If they don't have a compelling vision, or they aren't able to communicate effectively or aren't able to demonstrate their leadership and other credentials, then it will make it harder for Security Council members to encourage them," Rycroft said.
A Security Council diplomat, who asked not to be named, said "there could be some surprises."
"It's a bit like TV election debates. You could have someone who suddenly shines, or someone who goes in strong but then crashes," he said.
Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the candidates' showing could have an impact on the Security Council's choice this time around.
"For us, it's important that the next secretary-general enjoy the broadest possible support from members of the United Nations," Churkin said.
- Time for a woman -
Security Council members are facing calls to pick the first woman after eight men in the job, and to give preference to a candidate from Eastern Europe, the only region that has yet to be represented in the top post.
Russia has said that the next UN chief should come from that region and six eastern European countries have put forward candidates.
Aside from Bokova, they are former Slovenian president Danilo Turk, former foreign ministers Vesna Pusic of Croatia, Natalia Gherman of Moldova, Srgjan Kerim of Macedonia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Igor Luksic.
More candidates are expected to come forward, including two women who could shake up the race -- EU Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria and Argentina's Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra.
A total of 56 countries, including Japan and Germany, have signed up to an initiative led by Colombia calling for serious consideration to be given to female candidates.
Of the P5 powers, only Britain has said it is time for a woman to lead the United Nations. The other four have all demurred, saying only that they will back "the best person" for the job.
The search for Ban's successor comes at a time of high anxiety in global affairs as the United Nations grapples with the biggest refugee crisis since World War II and raging conflicts in the Middle East and Africa.
A wave of allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers has dealt a damaging blow to the world body's prestige.
The choice of a forward-thinking, eloquent and energetic secretary-general could help improve the UN's standing, with one diplomat saying "we need more of a general than a secretary."