06/23/2016 02:51 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2017

Two Terms Yield A Forward Leaning Legacy At The United Nations

Radius Images via Getty Images

In case you haven't heard, this is an election year.

And I'm not talking about the U.S. presidential election.

The United Nations General Assembly unanimously appointed Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to two five-year terms, the second of which draws to a close at the end of this year.

This fall, the nations of the world will gather at UN headquarters in New York to appoint a successor, one person to represent 7.4 billion people--or better yet, one person to represent the projected 8.2 billion who will occupy our planet by the end of 2026, when the next Secretary-General leaves that office, assuming that he, like Ban Ki-moon, enjoys two back-to-back terms.

Or, should I say, assuming that "she" enjoys two back-to-back terms.

Indeed, it is stunning to think that come January, we could see not only a woman in the White House, but also a woman on "the 38th floor," serving as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. For the first time in the UN's seventy-year history, several highly qualified female candidates are under serious consideration, with four formally declared and at least a dozen more names circulating through the rumor mill.

No matter who gets the job, she (or he) is going to have a tough act to follow.

At any given moment in history, the United Nations has before it essentially two related yet distinct agendas--the agenda that the United Nations proposes to the world and the agenda that the world imposes upon the United Nations.

As for the latter, under Ban Ki-moon, one might think of the Arab Spring, the war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the global financial crisis, the earthquake in Haiti, and Ebola. These are the unforeseen grenades that history lobs at every UN Secretary-General.

Where Ban Ki-moon has proven especially talented is in driving the other agenda, the agenda that the United Nations sets forth for the world.

First, Ban Ki-moon's 2007 Climate Summit catalyzed an international diplomatic dialogue that led ultimately to tangible progress in Paris this past December, when the United States and China reached a degree of climate reconciliation. In April, 175 UN Member States signed on to the Paris Agreement, committing to develop independent country-specific plans for meeting CO2 targets. It's not perfect, but it is a first step on a long climate change mitigation journey. We now have a map to guide us, or at least a compass to point the way.

Second, Ban Ki-moon has worked diligently for UN reform, seeking to make the institution "fit for purpose" and advancing the "delivering as one" agenda. He reconfigured bureaucracies to harness the power of multi-stakeholder partnerships with the private sector, civil society, philanthropists and academia. He streamlined budgeting, implemented a system-wide risk management approach, and spearheaded the adoption of a results-based planning, accountability and management system, all of which have made the UN not only more open, flexible and accountable, but also better able to deliver on its mandates.

Next, echoing this reform agenda, the UN General Assembly in 2010 created "UN Women," a new entity focused on gender equality and the empowerment of women. UN Women brought together resources and mandates associated with four distinct entities, including the former UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Promising greater impact, this consolidated entity will drive the gender equity agenda to new, previously unattainable heights.

Given the increasingly complex character of global emergencies, Ban Ki-moon also called for a World Humanitarian Summit, which took place last month in Istanbul, to address challenges and opportunities in the field of humanitarian response. Non-state actors and other geopolitical developments are engendering new man-made disasters--intractable armed conflicts. Likewise, natural disasters are becoming both more frequent and more ferocious. Alongside the World Humanitarian Summit stands adoption of the so-called "Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction," a forward-looking and action-oriented blueprint that seeks to undercut risks associated with natural hazards even before their destructive force is unleashed.

Finally, under Ban Ki-moon's leadership, the General Assembly last fall adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, also known as the "SDGs" or "Agenda 2030." A follow-on from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs represent a tectonic shift in the way we think about social and economic development.

While the MDGs focused exclusively on developing countries, the SDGs are considered universal. They apply not only to developing countries, but also to developed countries. What's more, while the eight MDGs were limited in scope, the SDGs--seventeen separate goals with 169 distinct targets--represent a decidedly more comprehensive approach to development.

Thus, on climate change, UN institutional reform, gender equity, humanitarian response, and sustainable development, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has set the global agenda, not just for the next few years or the next few decades, but indeed, for generations to come.

This comprehensive agenda demands comprehensive engagement.

Recently, Ban Ki-moon addressed hundreds of lawyers, law professors, law students, and others at the New York City Bar Association, stressing the unique role that attorneys must play.

The Secretary-General emphasized the Sustainable Development Goals and specifically Goal 16, the "good governance" goal. He argued that in adopting Goal 16, world leaders recognized that lasting progress "demands the rule of law, access to justice and solid institutions," institutions that are both "transparent and accountable." Progress "requires legal frameworks that provide for equal access to land, property, financial services and other basic commodities." Goal 16, the Secretary-General said, "reflects an understanding that peace demands justice, development fosters security, and human rights are always paramount."

Of course, the UN is not without its own "good governance" challenges. But recently, some preliminary steps have been taken to advance Goal 16 principles within the UN, for instance, by making the current Secretary-General selection process more transparent and participatory. While those steps might not yield the best candidate, they may help to eliminate the worst. That is a good thing, because for his successor, Ban Ki-moon has set the bar high.