“HE won’t vote for you; he says he is looking for a secretary general, not a secretary,” Elsa Papademetriou fumed at the response from the head of Twelve Plus Group as we strategised for my campaign as secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 2014. Twenty years after the Beijing Conference, the hurdle of form vs function is a challenge women aiming for the world’s highest political post have to overcome.
The year 2016 starts with a strong campaign by 49 governments led by Colombia’s ambassador to the UN Maria Emma Mejia. Pakistan, a nation which elected the Muslim world’s first female prime minister and now has its first woman ambassador to the UN, has joined the Group of Friends in Favour of a Woman Candidate for Secretary General. The UN is still the world’s main decision-making body with enforcement capacity for peace and security. The term of the current secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, will end on Dec 31, 2016.
The UN secretary general is elected by majority vote of the Security Council — including an affirmative vote by the five permanent members —US, Russia, China, France and the UK. One name is then sent to the UN General Assembly for majority acclamation.
Region-wise the distribution has been: Western Europe three secretaries general; Africa two, Asia two, Latin America one, and Eastern Europe none. In 1997, the Assembly accepted that “due regard … [be given] to regional rotation … and to gender equality”. Only two women have ever been officially nominated; neither was seriously considered.
Women are also vying for the post of UN’s next chief.
Pakistan is not a member of the Security Council, but an active member of the General Assembly and the Non-Aligned Movement group which is pushing for more transparency and revitalisation of the Assembly. Many observers consider the latter as the UN parliament; it elects the Security Council’s non-permanent members and adopts global treaties and conventions.
The current Assembly president is the former speaker of the Danish parliament, who is shifting the centre of decision-making. He, along with Colombian Ambassador Mejia, has persuaded the Council to formally open the process with a joint letter giving the Assembly a role in soliciting/circulating nominations and hearing from candidates. This move is apparently part of the revitalisation process of the Assembly.
Pakistan as a major contributor of peacekeeping troops has an informal role through its connections with key Council members such as China and a formal vote in the Assembly. While there is a push from some countries for the Council to send more than one name for the Assembly vote; UN expert Prof Simon Chesterman thinks it highly unlikely that the US, Russia and China would agree to such a dilution of their veto.
Months of concerted lobbying are changing the atmosphere to be more favourable for a woman. Officials have started to say “she or he” when referring to the next secretary general; half a dozen women candidates are lobbying for the job.
Two women from Eastern Europe, the region up next under rotation, have been formally declared. Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, Unesco director general, has been the first. She reportedly has the support of France, where Unesco is based and Russia, having studied with the Russian foreign minister. Unesco’s expanding work on the Freedom of Expression campaign with Christiane Amanpour of CNN gives her a new platform.
A strong challenger is Vesna Pusic, foreign minister of Croatia who has experience of the brutal wars in the Balkans and of the beneficial role of UN peacekeeping interventions in those wars. Her campaign goals are building up the UN’s capacity in peacemaking and peacekeeping.
In case Eastern Europe does not get the early support of the Council, undeclared candidates, mostly women, from other regions will be making themselves known.
Helen Clark, a strong contender, is former prime minister of New Zealand. She heads UNDP, the largest UN agency on human security and development, a key area for post-conflict stability in Afghanistan. New Zealand is also on the Council.
While Western Europe has several women presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers, a fourth secretary general from there may not be feasible. An exception could be Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Latin America’s list includes Susana Malcorra the Argentine foreign minister and formerly UN chef de cabinet, Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen of Costa Rica the climate change negotiator, Colombia’s foreign minister María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar, and Michele Bachelet the Chilean president.
Were the race to open wider, South Asia is uniquely placed for input. Every South Asian country with the exception of Bhutan has had women leaders, as presidents, prime ministers, speakers of parliament, agency heads, etc. Pakistan should review carefully as the field narrows, which candidate we, as the UN’s largest troop contributor, will support as the first madam secretary general.
Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2016