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Is the US doing enough to push for a female leader of the UN?

Malcorra Susana
Susana Malcorra, Argentina's foreign minister, is one of several female candidates for UN secretary-general. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

As the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opens this week, the world has a chance to truly accelerate the Women, Peace and Security agenda by urging the heads of government of countries on the UN Security Council to elect a woman as the ninth UN secretary-general. President Obama, who will be addressing the UNGA, is in a position to take the lead.

Gender bias in the UN system runs deep, in both its affiliated bodies and its principal organs, including the UN Security Council (UNSC) itself. This fact was on full display in the four UNSC straw polls of secretary-general candidates this summer. Despite an array of equally qualified women, the straw polls tapped mostly men; women were unable to get beyond third place.

The average net score for men in four rounds of straw polls was 19.5; the average net score for women was -7.8. The top three positions among men have been held by Antonio Guterres, former head of the UN High Commission for Refugees and former prime minister of Portugal; Vuk Jeremic of Serbia and Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia; and Danilo Turk of Slovenia. The Security Council will continue the balloting every few weeks until consensus emerges on a candidate.

The top three women—polling far behind the men—are Irina Bokova of Bulgaria; Susana Malcorra, foreign minister of Argentina; and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand. Given the equivalence in numbers, qualifications, and experience, the only explanation for this voting pattern is open discrimination by members of the UNSC.

The appointment of eight men in a row as secretaries-general is a “stern indictment of inequality by a male-dominated diplomatic and security establishment,” said Donald Steinberg, former deputy administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development and former U.S. ambassador to Angola. “For this to have occurred naturally, the odds are 0.04 percent, or 256:1.”

Hurdles for the women candidates remain high. Of the 15 member countries of the UNSC, only one, the United Kingdom, has a government headed by a woman—Prime Minister Theresa May. However, UK Ambassador Matthew Rycroft has been noticeably silent, especially given his prior vocal support for a woman.

In the Security Council, only the United States has a female ambassador, but Ambassador Samantha Power cast doubt over U.S. support for women by not being present to hear the first female candidate at the public hearings in the UNGA, leaving right after the first male candidate’s presentation.

While not in the UN Charter, the principle of regional rotation remains strong as precedent; the Eastern Europe group with the support of the Russian Federation is expected to have a strong showing in the short-listing. Two women candidates are from Eastern Europe.

In the upcoming straw polls, UNSC members must dispassionately analyze the candidacies of the women, setting aside the established bias of default-setting-to-male at the international level. Of the women, four have headed or are heading major UN agencies. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria heads UNESCO, the education agency also protecting cultural heritage sites like Palmyra. Susana Malcorra, currently Argentina’s foreign minister, was the UN’s chef de cabinet and ran peacekeeping support operations, which is often called the “meat and potatoes” of the UN system. Helen Clark, former New Zealand prime minister, heads the UN Development Programme, the largest UN agency charged with human security. Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica headed the UN’s climate change negotiations in the Paris Agreement. Natalia Gherman of Moldova has served as foreign minister.

The agencies and the issues that these women have dealt with constitute the preventive, long-term security, sustainable development agenda that the UN must implement over the next decade.

Equally important for the credibility of the UNSC is to show that it takes its own unanimously approved resolutions 1325 and 2242 on Women, Peace and Security seriously. Beyond resolutions are treaties and conventions on human rights and women’s rights negotiated by states through the UN. According to former UN legal counsel Hans Corell, “Even if the UN is not formally bound by these treaties under international treaty law, the standards laid down in these treaties, in particular treaties protecting human rights, should be observed also by the UN.”

One of these legal instruments is the widely adopted Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). A majority of the members of the UNSC, including four of the permanent members with veto power (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom), have ratified CEDAW. Keeping women candidates lower down in the straw polls by piling on “discourage” votes is a violation of CEDAW and related national laws.

The top posts of the United Nations system are public positions funded by taxpayer money; the votes governments cast must adhere to both international law and their national laws, many of which go beyond CEDAW to include affirmative action.

The United States—which has not ratified CEDAW—nonetheless has strong affirmative action laws, which the State Department has to apply in its own hiring and promotions. The State Department’s application of affirmative action for women “was not a voluntary action—there was a lawsuit by women officers in early ’70s. The State Department lost the case in the 1990s,” according to Steinberg. “The district court stated that by discriminating against women, our foreign policy is not the best foreign policy it can be. The court also required the State Department to prove that the results on foreign policy were better because of women’s participation.”

This led to major changes at the State Department, including the U.S. putting forward women candidates to head UN agencies. Steinberg pointed out that it also laid the groundwork for the appointments of female U.S. ambassadors to the UN, including the first, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Susan Rice, the first African-American woman. “We understood that women can be effective and it’s in our national interest to do so,” said Steinberg.

While not subject to affirmative action laws, one could argue that President Obama’s judicial appointments have clearly applied those principles. According to a report in The New Yorker, “The majority of Obama’s [judicial] appointments are women and nonwhite males.” Forty-two percent of his judgeships have gone to women.

President Obama should apply the same principles to the United States choice for UN secretary-general. His upcoming speech to the UNGA should make it clear that the United States will not use its veto power to hold back a woman. The U.S. taxpayer is still the largest contributor to the UN budget, and we expect our laws to be upheld in our diplomacy.

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