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Will 2016 be the year for a woman UN Secretary-General?

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The year 2016 has started with two strong campaigns—by some 48 governments, led by Colombia’s female ambassador to the United Nations, and by NGOs, led by women experts on the UN—to elect the first woman secretary-general of the UN.

The UN remains the world’s top global body for peace and security. The secretary-general sets and implements the UN’s priorities under agreement from member governments and is the most powerful civil servant in the world. Current SG Ban Ki-Moon’s term ends in December.

Both campaigns started in the spring of 2015. Although there have been attempts in the past to promote women for the job, this time feminists in governments and women’s groups have been more strategic. As the first woman to have served as secretary-general of an international parliamentary organization, I was asked to join the Core Committee of WomanSG, a nonprofit campaign of women experts on the UN to promote a woman secretary-general.  

WomanSG started by defining our objectives: Did we want a woman to be “seriously considered,” something that had never happened in the UN’s 70-year history, or did we want to ensure that the final appointee is a woman? Did she have to be a feminist? Many women, as they climb up the intergovernmental ladder, leave ideals and other women behind. Did she have to be from the region up next under rotation rules? Who would we be lobbying—all 193 governments in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) or just the 15 members of the UN Security Council, with a focus on the permanent members, the “P5” (United States, Russia, China, France, and United Kingdom) with veto power?

We eventually agreed the goal was a woman as UNSG; we would not take a position on specific women, and while pushing for transparency, we would not try to change the UN’s selection process. Members of WomanSG have been meeting with representatives from both Council governments and the Colombia-led group of countries to lay out our reasoning for why this time the best candidate as the 9th UNSG is a woman. Our committee members attended policy sessions, held public discussions, and wrote several op-eds. Our hashtag, #She4SG, started trending. Over time, the language used by UN officials, key ambassadors, and foreign ministers began to change from “he” to “he or she,” and now some have started to use “she or he.”

As explained in detail by the Security Council Report (SCR), under the UN Charter and subsequent resolutions, the UNSG is elected by the Council, with the P5 having veto power; then a single name is sent to the General Assembly for majority endorsement.

In 1981, the Security Council started using a “straw ballot” procedure with initially two options—“encourage” or “discourage”—and later a “no opinion” option. This process of elimination as names are brought up helps to arrive at one acceptable to all P5 and a majority of the Security Council. While the P5 veto is decisive, candidates have been eliminated early on because they had little support from the elected members.

In the regional distribution of secretaries-general, Eastern Europe has had none; Latin America has had one; other regions have had two or three. In 1997, the UNGA endorsed “due regard … to regional rotation … and to gender equality” in choosing the secretary-general. Only two women candidates in 70 years have been officially nominated—Ambassador Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India by the USSR in 1953; and President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia, by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2006. 

The UNGA is viewed by most observers as the parliament of the UN; it elects the Security Council’s nonpermanent members. The current UNGA president is the former speaker of the Danish parliament. He, along with governments pushing for transparency, has been able to persuade the Council to issue a joint letter giving the UNGA a role in soliciting/circulating nominations and meeting candidates. 

Jean Krasno, chair of WomanSG, says, “The joint letter … reinforces the call for open interviews with candidates so that all the GA and even civil society can have an opportunity to see and evaluate the candidates. It also draws attention to the nomination of women, something that has never even been discussed openly in the past.”

The decision on how each country will vote will be made mostly by men.  In the Council, Ambassador Samantha Power, US permanent representative, is the only woman among the 15. However, Ian Martin, the president of SCR and a close observer of the Council, is of the view that “the issue will be dealt with more on a country basis; some countries have women candidates. Essentially, it will be decided in capitols at head of government level.” 

There are already a half dozen women actively vying for the job. Of the official declared campaigns, four Eastern European governments have put forward names; two of these are women. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, director-general of UNESCO, has had an early lead. She is close to the French government (UNESCO is based in Paris) and to Russia, having been a college classmate of the Russian foreign minister. In a prior interview with WMC, she staked out her issues as “civil and political rights, mutual respect, knowledge about each other. To promote freedom of expression is part of peace, good governance, and human rights.”

A key challenger is Vesna Pusic [pictured], foreign minister of Croatia, who said she set her sights on the job because she believes the UN is “the only place on the planet where all different nations can sit down and talk.”

“We went through horrible wars in the Balkans. If you are not very focused, it [descent into war] happens very easily,” said Pusic. “UN peacekeepers are crucial … to keep the two sides at bay. UN should also have [more] capacity and authority … in peace-making and peace-building.”

Western Europe has many high-level female candidates—presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers, including Federica Mogherini of Italy, who is getting increased attention as the only women at the main peace table with the P5 foreign ministers in the Iran nuclear negotiations and Syrian Council resolution. 

Another strong undeclared contender is Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the UN Development Programme, the largest affiliated UN agency on human security and development. “I don’t see particular hurdles for women,” said Clark. “The issue is what skill sets UN member states will prioritize.” New Zealand is also a member of the Council.

While she is often mentioned as the “dream candidate,” political observers interviewed in Germany do not think that Chancellor Angela Merkel is going to leave national politics at this stage. Were her calculus to change, Merkel, from the former East Germany, would be a formidable candidate. 

Representatives from Latin American countries are also canvassing and making it clear that they will not accept a fourth Western European SG, according to Martin. Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s newly appointed foreign minister, had a long, distinguished UN career as under-secretary general, field support and chief operating officer of the World Food Programme, ending as chef de cabinet to Ban Ki-Moon. Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen of Costa Rica has just led the contentious climate change negotiations to a very successful conclusion. Colombia’s foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar, has been leading her country’s final round of peace negotiations with the FARC guerillas to end the continent’s longest war. Michelle Bachelet, current president of Chile, former head of UN Women, is also on various lists.

Women have long breached the glass ceiling in international organizations. With the majority of declared and undeclared candidates for SG being women, the UN system seems to be preparing itself; more than 70 percent of high-level posts in recent appointments have been given to men before Madam Secretary-General steps in.




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