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UN Secretary General—Time for a Woman

September 11, 2006

When the 61st session of the United Nations General Assembly opens this week, its new president, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, will have her hands full. The Bahrain lawyer and first woman in decades to serve as president of the General Assembly has said that reform is vital as is agreement on a “comprehensive and practical strategy” to fight terrorism. Her first order of business may well involve the decision of who will replace UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose second and last term is up at the end of the year. Despite Sheikha Haya’s election, the United Nations still misses the point grasped in such countries as Germany, Jamaica, Liberia, Chile, and New Zealand: that women, too, can serve as leaders at the highest level. In the UN system, the 15-member Security Council vastly overpowers Sheikha Haya’s General Assembly—although some members have demanded that the GA, which must approve the SC’s recommendation for UN chief, take a more active role in choosing Annan’s successor. No woman has served as secretary general in the 61 years since the United Nations was founded, and, to date, none has emerged as a leading candidate in consultations in advance of this year’s choice. And despite the body's stated goal of achieving gender parity within the system by the year 2000, women remain grossly underrepresented: Only 16 percent of undersecretaries general are women. More than a decade after the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing called for “mechanisms to nominate women candidates for appointment to senior posts in the United Nations,” no such mechanism is in place for the most senior post. The selection process—cloaked in secrecy and devoid of formal procedure—hardly serves any notion of transparency or democracy. To be successful a candidate must avoid a veto by any of the five permanent members of the Security Council: China, France, Russia, Britain, and the United States. Who the candidates are, often a subject of intrigue and speculation by the media, can be as much a mystery as how they are considered—a process that keeps many qualified candidates, and especially qualified women, from getting due deliberation. Women qualified for the post abound. Among those serving at the level of undersecretary general or at the highest level of national government are UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia (who has expressed interest in the secretary general post). After serving as prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland held the post of director general of the World Health Organization. Currently a judge on the International Criminal Court, Navanethem Pillay served previously for four years as president of the UN Rwanda Tribunal. It is understood that a secretary general should not be the national of any permanent member of the Security Council and that the post is subject to regional rotation.The general feeling is that it is now Asia's "turn," but some call for an Eastern European choice. Although no woman has ever held the post, the idea of a woman's "turn" has yet to take hold. There are many qualified Asian women, although none seems to be on the current list of candidates. Sadako Ogata, from Japan, served as UN high commissioner for many years. Nafis Sadik of Pakistan served as executive director of the UN Population Fund. Anson Chan served with distinction as head of Hong Kong's civil service. Leticia Shahani was president of the Philippine Senate, as well as a UN assistant secretary general. Clearly women qualify. The Security Council has only to look for them. Speaking on International Women's Day this spring, Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that the role of women in decision making is "central to the advancement of women around the world, and to the progress of humankind as a whole," and expressed his view that "the world is ready for a woman secretary general." The secretary general is right—we are ready and waiting. Unfortunately, his record does not match his words: the percentage of women serving as managers on his staff has decreased since 2004, and he replaced the first female deputy secretary general with a man. As high-level vacancies arise, there is little indication that any effort is made to identify and recruit qualified women. Women's unequal access to positions of power in the United Nations hinders progress toward all the organization's goals, including equality, development, and peace. Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a critical role in the early years of the United Nations, reminded us that universal human rights begin in small places, close to home, in this case the halls of the United Nations. She said, "Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

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