Promising Signs at the UN
February 8, 2007
While he was still secretary-general designate, in his first address to the General Assembly, Ban Ki-Moon promised he would “lead by example” and announced that one of his goals was to appoint more women at the UN secretariat, particularly at senior levels. This week, with former Tanzania Foreign Minister Asha-Rose Migiro sworn in as deputy secretary-general, he is apparently on a path toward finally implementing the commitment to gender balance that was stated explicitly in the platform adopted more than a decade ago at the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Secretary-General Ban made a conscious and public effort to recruit a woman for the number two post at the secretariat, and he has named several other women to high-level posts in his first round of appointments, including Alicia Barcena of Mexico, former Secretary-General Annan’s chef de cabinet, as UN under-secretary-general for management. Ban also appointed Michele Montas, an award-winning journalist from Haiti who had served as the spokesperson for the president of the General Assembly, as his own spokesperson. The Beijing conference target for implementing the gender-balance commitment was the year 2000, but the UN was making little progress toward the goal. A report issued in September 2006 noted that the representation of women at professional and higher levels had remained almost static in recent years, and that in some cases there had even been a decrease. The D-1 director level had dropped almost 7 percentage points to 25.3%. As of June 2006, only 15.4% of the under-secretaries general were women, down for the second consecutive year. Overall, women occupied only 37.4% of professional and higher-level posts in the secretariat, at the same level it had been for three years. Against this backdrop, the early and public commitment of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to the advancement of women in the United Nations system is encouraging. The posts to which he has appointed women are critical to the management of the organization and its public representation. Among Deputy Secretary Migaro’s responsibilities, he has said, are day-to-day administration and reform. By choosing these women, the new secretary-general has sent a signal suggesting that the goal of 50/50 gender balance is well within reach—if he is determined to reach it and continues to recruit qualified women proactively. He should be encouraged to establish a revised target date for this goal and demonstrate that such commitments can and should have meaning. Many other pressing concerns in the United Nations relating to gender demand swift and effective action from the new secretary-general. Within the UN, sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls by UN personnel has been widely reported for years and yet apparently continues with impunity. A Daily Telegraph report that peacekeeping and civilian UN staff in Juba sexually abused Sudanese children quoted the remarks of the Sudan mission’s regional coordinator, James Ellery, as follows: “We investigated all allegations made and no evidence was forthcoming. None of these claims can be substantiated. This is the most backward country in Africa and there are lots of misunderstandings as to the UN’s role. Over 90 per cent of people here are illiterate and rumours therefore spread very quickly.” He was also reported to have said, “We are applying a standard of morality that is very, very high but we cannot expect that soldiers when they go abroad are going to behave themselves as we think they should. . . . There are a wide range of countries being represented in the UN forces and among these there is always going to be a bad apple.” Ellery’s comments as reported are typical of the attitude inside the United Nations that has allowed sexual abuse to continue with impunity. They are deeply offensive to the people of the Sudan, and suggest that a country’s level of illiteracy renders reports of sexual abuse not credible. Following the Daily Telegraph reports, Ban announced a new inquiry into the charges. Spokeswoman Michele Montas said, “the UN standard on this issue is clear; zero tolerance, meaning zero complacency and zero impunity.” By taking swift corrective action, the secretary-general can start to change the prevailing UN culture to ensure that officials at all levels reflect that standard. The secretary-general should also act to ensure the implementation of Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. This resolution, which recognizes the critical role of women in conflict resolution, has been widely trumpeted in name only. In the past, special envoys and other UN representatives selected by the secretary-general to deal with emergency situations in conflict zones and elsewhere have been almost exclusively men. Integrating women at this level, a tremendous resource of talent and skill largely untapped to date, could have a dramatic impact on the capacity of the United Nations to play an effective role in challenging situations around the world. The deployment of an all-women UN peacekeeping force from India to Liberia is a welcome initiative. The UN should also engage the International Women’s Commission, a tripartite endeavor of Palestinian, Israeli and international women chaired by UNIFEM to promote a just and sustainable peace in the Middle East. Whether the first steps of Ban Ki-Moon represent a long-term commitment and the beginning of a sustained effort to change the United Nations at its core remains to be seen. If the secretary-general has the vision and courage to open the doors at the highest level, long closed to women, the world will benefit. The early signs are promising. Jessica Neuwirth is a Women’s Media Center board member and president of Equality Now, an international women's rights organization.