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Now Is the Time for a Female Secretary-General, Says a New Campaign [Video]


Convinced that after 70 years it is time to choose a woman for the United Nations’ top job of secretary-general, a new movement led by an academic spcialist on the organization has been assembled to formally support the election of a woman for the job. The current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, a Korean, finishes his second five-year term on Dec. 31, 2016, and is unlikely to try for another, even though the UN Charter does not disallow it.

That means serious jockeying for the post begins now, with a more official process underway by July 2015 and ending a year later with a vote.

“We have had eight male S-Gs and it is time for a woman,” said Jean Krasno, who is leading the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary-General and was interviewed for the video, above. Krasno is a lecturer in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York and a lecturer and associate research scholar at Yale. She is also in charge of organizing the papers of Kofi Annan, a former secretary-general, in a joint project by City College and Yale.

“Women make up half the world’s population, and it is time that a woman is represented as secretary-general,” Krasno added. “We already have a list of 29 outstanding women.”

The campaign’s goal is to search for and support the most qualified female candidates, promote openness in the selection process and involve governments and civil society in the search and selection.

The process of picking a secretary-general is, like many high-level positions at the UN, anything but open. Shrouded in secrecy and private meetings, the long exercise to pick a candidate leaves many diplomats and others out of the loop, with the permanent-five members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — often the main parties fully aware of which names actually have a chance at being endorsed.

Despite louder calls, decade after decade, inside the UN and its outer circle for more openness regarding appointments to the UN, nothing has changed since 1945, when the world body originated and Trygve Lie, a Norwegian, was plucked — albeit reluctantly — for secretary-general.

In the post-Wikileaks era, coupled with disclosures of American government wiretapping, the UN appears severely dated in its privileged methods of hiring people for high-echelon posts. For the job of secretary-general, or as Ban once called it, “president of the world,” the process is even more suppressed and generally dominated by the US with approval, grudging and otherwise, from its fellow permanent members on the Security Council. Once these countries sign off on a candidate, the General Assembly gets the final vote.

Yet the US will not be the only country demanding its way. As Lucia Mouat, who covered the UN for the Christian Science Monitor and has written a book about the UN secretaries-general, points out, “Politics is not restricted to US dealings.”

Indeed, all 193 member states can submit names, and the word so far is that many candidates to be suggested will be women, as countries far and wide are recognizing that consensus has peaked for a female secretary-general to lead the UN next, so nations want to be ready to offer their best choices.

Historically, the process has been relegated to geographic rotation, although that arrangement is not documented in any UN rulebook. Nor is it set in stone that a candidate from the permanent-five countries cannot be chosen.

If geography is adhered to, the next term should go to Eastern Europe. Despite this stricture, dozens of names beyond those borders have been flung into the arena. Some names that have been mentioned include presidents of Lithuania (a woman) and Chile (a woman); former heads of state from Australia (a man); and even a Western European — Angela Merkel of Germany — as it appears that the Eastern Europe umbrella could encompass all of Europe, according to some political observers, as well as Canada.

A woman who works at the United Nations and others refers to the wall of portraits in New York of secretaries-general
A “man panel” of portraits of United Nations secretaries-general, located in a hallway of the headquarters in New York.

Helen Clark, who runs the UN Development Program, said ages ago that she wanted the job. She is from New Zealand, which happens to be a newly elected member of the Security Council this year and falls, however unnaturally, in the Western Europe and Others regional grouping at the UN.

Candidates are already “pounding flesh and employing lobbyists,” wrote Stephen Browne and Thomas G. Weiss in an essay published in PassBlue. Browne and Weiss lead FUNDS, or the Future United Nations Development System, a project of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center (as is PassBlue).

The movement led by Krasno consists of about a dozen women from a range of countries, and includes people who have worked in the UN as well as in academia, media and nonprofit groups. The aim is to come up with a list of the best possible female candidates to become secretary-general, rather than meet the expectation of geographic rotation, for the 2017-2022 term, so the candidates do not have to hail from Eastern Europe. (Full disclosure: this writer is part of the group.)

A well-researched databank will be compiled by Krasno’s campaign, listing potential contenders, to be posted online.

In parallel, a group of prominent nongovernment organizations and individuals has begun a campaign to support more openness in the process of electing the next secretary-general. The campaign, called 1 for 7 Billion, announced its plans last fall “to find the best UN leader.”

The Elders, a formation of elite, independent leaders and headed by Kofi Annan, has also been promoting ways to “make a stronger and more effective” UN. Gro Harlem Brundtland, who was once a prime minister of Norway, is an Elder whose name has been bandied about as a possible secretary-general, too.

In another stab at more openness in UN appointment processes, the news in November that the head of the UN’s huge humanitarian agency, Valerie Amos, a Briton, would be leaving in March 2015 provoked frustration by the media, individuals and the nonprofit world. They all voiced concern that her replacement would be a candidate based on nationality and political handpicking rather than on merit. (The job has yet to be filled.)

In response, the UN, as it must, publicly encouraged applicants to submit their resumes through the proper channels for Amos’s job, even as Ban’s office seems beholden to accept a name designated by Britain, which has led the humanitarian agency since 2007. David Cameron, the prime minister, apparently submitted the name of Andrew Lansley, an ousted Parliament member, to Ban right before Amos’s departure was announced.

Mark Malloch Brown, a former British government minister and a UN under secretary-general, called Cameron’s move a “political dumping.”

Jeff Laurenti, an American commentator on UN-Washington affairs, remarked on social media about the Lansley suggestion, saying that Ban “is now on auto-pilot to retirement; he doesn’t have to worry about the big boys vetoing his continuation in office. He can afford to draw the line at the most brazen efforts to place political hacks at the top levels of the UN.”

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Now Is the Time for a Female Secretary-General, Says a New Campaign [Video]
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Nikola Krastev
Nikola Krastev
8 years ago

A commendable initiative, thank you. I am a bit puzzled though by the suggestion that the geographical rotation principle should be abolished. Why? It has proven itself an efficient confrontation-deflecting principle as it provides for a fair geographical representation of potential candidates. Besides, the last time the UN Secretary-General was elected from the roster of the European states was in 1976. It’s hard to imagine that someone would perceive as unfair putting forward in 2016 electable candidates from Europe, and specifically Eastern Europe. And while all female candidates mentioned in the video/article have impressive resumes, it appears at this point that it is the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova who may fit the bill. She is from Eastern Europe, she has an intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the United Nations, has proven herself an efficient manager, flexible negotiator and budget-savvy executive, she is fluent in four of the UN’s six official languages (English, French, Russian and Spanish), and is reportedly on good terms with all of the P5. Anyway, my point is not to single out a potential candidate but just to emphasize that preserving the geographical rotation principle AND putting forward a list of suitable female candidacies will work just fine. Trivia: former prime ministers and former presidents have never been elected so far as UN Secretary-General.

8 years ago
Reply to  Nikola Krastev

Valid points, Nikola. And if you look at the video, you will see we include Ms. Bokova as a possible contender. –The Editors

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