The Next UN Secretary-General: Everything Points Towards a Woman

One candidate to become the first female UN Secretary- General: Irina Bokova, currently Secretary General of UNESCO. By Chatham House, London [CC BY 2.0]

The High Level week of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly opened this week. Important issues will be debated and decisions made, which in turn will establish guidelines for the UN’s image and operations in the coming years. Next year’s election of a new Secretary-General is lurking in the background. After eight male secretaries general, pressure is mounting for the election of a woman. And this time everything is in place for the next secretary general to be a woman. There are four main factors that suggest such an outcome: a need for renewal; changes in attitudes; women’s actual emergence into international politics; and extensive campaigning activities.

A need for renewal

The UN is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year and has commissioned a series of reviews of, among other things, UN peace operations, the UN’s peacebuilding architecture, and measures to include women in its work on international peace and security. A recurring theme of these studies is the need for modernization, democratization and improved efficiency within the UN. These needs for reform will also be relevant to the election of the next Secretary-General.

Although the Secretary-General is formally elected by the UN General Assembly, in practice candidates have been selected by the Security Council, with its five veto-wielding permanent members. This closed process has been the subject of political horse-trading and secret votes. High politics have carried much more weight than individual candidates’ qualifications and personal suitability. These secret processes have made it especially difficult for female candidates to succeed.

Recently, however, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution calling for greater openness in the election process. The Security Council will continue to play a key role in the election of the Secretary-General. From now on, however, potential candidates will have to be presented to the General Assembly, which will be able to question them if it wishes to do so.

The resolution states that the candidates must satisfy “the highest possible requirements”. In addition, UN member states will be encouraged to put forward female candidates. From the perspective of reform, the election of a woman would be important symbolically for the UN. It would be a clear indication of renewal.

A normative shift

In 2006 – when Ban Ki Moon, the current Secretary-General, was elected – the time had quite simply not yet arrived for a woman to be elected. It was still the case that many diplomats and politicians in UN member states had difficulty envisaging a woman as leader of an organization with responsibility for international peace and security. Since that time, there have been major normative changes in views about women and women’s rights, both with regard to international policy in general, and security policy in particular.

Since 2008 the Security Council has passed a total of six resolutions that have clarified and strengthened international law in the area “women, peace and security”. The UN is strongly committed to combating sexual violence against women in conflict situations. The necessity of including women and women’s interests in peace processes in order to achieve lasting peace is no longer particularly controversial.

Today this view is also becoming more widespread among regional organizations such as the EU, NATO and the African Union (AU). This normative shift must in time be acknowledged in the appointment of women to top positions. Here the UN, as setter of global norms, should play a leading role.

An actual shift

Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, former foreign minister of South Africa, current head of the African Union.

In the almost 10 years that have passed since the last election of a Secretary-General, there has also been an actual change as women have broken through into the top ranks of international politics. In Latin America, Argentina, Chile and Brazil have all had female presidents. In Africa, Liberia’s long-time president is the well-known Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In recent years, the AU has also been headed by a woman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

In Asia, women have played important roles in peace processes in, among other places, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. In Europe we have a number of female heads of state and heads of government, of whom the most powerful is Angela Merkel. In addition, there is a steadily increasing number of female defence and foreign ministers. The EU’s two most recent “foreign ministers” are also women, with Catherine Ashton now succeeded by Federica Mogherini. Both Ashton and Mogherini have played key roles in, among other things, the negotiation of an agreement with Iran about its nuclear programme. And there is also a real possibility that in 2016, for the first time in history, a woman will be elected as president of the United States.

Why am I highlighting all these examples? The reason is to emphasize that women in top positions in international politics are no longer curiosities. Over the past five years, women have come forward and shown that they can lead just as well (or badly) as men. Diplomats who have claimed previously that there are no women who are qualified for the role of UN Secretary-General must now revise their arguments.

Campaigns and reputation

The fourth factor pointing towards the election of a female UN Secretary-General is all the heavyweight campaigns that have been launched this year to have a woman elected. These campaigns have emerged both from the member states themselves and from various groups of civil society organizations (CSOs). Similar campaigns also existed at past crossroads in the UN’s history, but those campaigns were far less targeted and lacked the heavyweight support of the current campaigns.

For example, Colombia has gained the support of 43 countries (including Norway) for its call for proactive efforts to identify female candidates. Organizations such as Amnesty are involved in these campaigns, together with a number of major international women’s organizations and well known UN researchers. The Elders, headed by among others Gro Harlem Brundtland and Kofi Annan, have written an open letter in support of greater openness round the election process. Newspapers such as the New York Times and the Guardian have also devoted much space to the issue.

Neither the UN’s current leadership nor its most influential member states are immune to such campaigning. Earlier this summer, Russia’s ambassador to the UN dismissed the campaigns by indicating that Russia would not support a process that discriminated against men. Two weeks back, however, when the General Assembly was adopting its resolution, Russia’s attitude had shifted to one of support for a female candidate, provided that she came from Eastern Europe.

This is an interesting tactical shift from one of the countries that will have the final word when the new UN Secretary-General is to be elected. This may open the way for one of the many Eastern European women whose candidacies have been launched, both formally and informally, over recent months.

Choice of path

When the UN elects its new Secretary-General next autumn, gender will for the first time be an important factor to take into consideration. The Secretary-General’s gender will tell us much about the direction in which the members of the Security Council wish to take the UN. If they choose a woman, the UN’s image will become more modern and democratic. Alternatively, if they choose a man, they will contribute to confirming the image of the UN as traditional and cumbersome. Right now, most indicators suggest that the next UN Secretary-General will be a woman.

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