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Has Russia Dashed All Hopes for a Female Secretary-General?


Vitaly Churkin
Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN. He said that gender should be secondary as to who becomes the next UN secretary-general and that “Discrimination against men is also unacceptable.”

Has Russia put the kibosh on the chances that the next secretary-general of the United Nations will be a woman?

As Vitaly Churkin walked ramrod-straight in his dark suit to a working-group discussion at the UN on the process of selecting the next secretary-general, he acted as if he owned the place. Some might say that he does on the matter of picking the next UN leader, given that the country he represents as an ambassador, Russia, may carry an inordinate amount of clout as a nation in the Eastern European bloc as well as a permanent member of the Security Council. PassBlue reported on these circumstances recently.

Eastern Europeans say that it is their turn to win the secretary-general position in the election next year, as calls to have female candidates in the race expand, a subject echoed in an op-ed essay in The Washington Post this week.

In Churkin’s speech to the countries gathered on April 27 at the General Assembly meeting, an informal discussion that was not recorded, Churkin said that gender should be “of secondary importance” and that the candidate should be chosen on merit alone. “Discrimination against men is also unacceptable,” he said.

Churkin is not known for his subtlety, even though he has grown nearly silent in his rapport with the media covering the UN since sanctions were slapped by the United States and Europe on Russia for its annexation of Crimea in Ukraine in 2014.

But his comments at the debate — the third in a series on reforming the process of choosing a secretary-general for the 2017-2022 term — reflected the inner Churkin that he may have been repressing publicly for the last year. His remarks most likely express the views of his capital, Moscow, and President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s central role in hand-picking the next secretary-general stems from the unwritten rule of geographic rotation that governs so much of UN leadership roles. In this case, the Eastern European bloc, part of the geographic breakdown at the world body, is jockeying seriously for its right as next in line to install a secretary-general from its region. It is the only regional grouping to not have held the post, and it is not about to let that opportunity go.

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Churkin was one of the few diplomats speaking at the debate to state boldly that the next secretary-general does not need to be a woman, despite at least two new campaigns, led by women’s groups, to ensure the opposite.

Besides the initiatives to install a woman in the UN’s highest job, now held by Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, who leaves office on Dec. 31, 2016, other new campaigns are promoting more democratic selection procedures that do not require changes to the UN Charter.

The Elders, a group of former high-ranking international political figures, for example, suggests limiting the five-year term, with renewal options, to a single seven-year term.

The other vocal campaign is 1 for 7 Billion, which is advocating for a modern approach to the selection process, which will likely culminates by mid-2016. This campaign is relying on a torrent of social media and other public engagement to influence how the process is conducted.

Both groups are not necessarily clamoring for the job to go to a woman.

Indeed, most of the diplomats who spoke at the General Assembly debate recently, held amid a swarm of foreign ministers attending the first day of the review conference on the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, backed not only the demands for clarity and wider participation by governments in the next secretary-general choice but also that the “best” person for the job should be a woman. (Some of the few countries that stood out for not mentioning a female candidacy included Malaysia and Mexico.)

Only Finland, normally a reticent country, matched the boldness of Russia with its specificity. Finland “attached great importance to gender equality,” said Janne Taalas, the deputy permanent representative, adding that his country praised “Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for increasing the number of women in the top floors and corner offices.”

He quickly delved into the core of his country’s stance on women: “This trend needs to continue. The next step should be to break the glass ceiling to the 38th floor [where the secretary-general’s office is located]. Competency, regional representation and gender balance must all be taken into consideration. We expect to see many excellent candidates and hope that the best ones will be women.”

Janne Taalas, the Finnish ambassador to the UN, whose country has endorsed a female candidacy to lead the UN for the 2017 term.
Janne Taalas, a Finnish diplomat who said his country fully endorses a female candidacy for the next secretary-general.

Yet however much advocates and diplomats insist on a more palatable process, it will be impossible to ignore the geographic  prerogative. (The campaign and Equality Now’s initiative both feature possible female candidates from Eastern Europe on their websites.) Many countries in the region, for example, lamented at the debate and elsewhere that they have never had the chance to have one of their own as secretary-general. Their time has come, they insist.

Nevertheless, pundits who follow this issue have wondered aloud what the borders of Eastern Europe consist of in the post-Communist, pro-European Union era. The demarcations couldn’t be more malleable with the tug of war between Russia and Europe at play in eastern Ukraine.

The nations that label themselves Eastern European, at least in the UN, have no qualms seizing that geographical designation now. And many countries that spoke at the debate acknowledged this point, including Germany, which noted firmly its “respect” for the geographic claim of Eastern Europe. South American nations, hoping to install a favorite of their own, notably Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, question the territorial limit. The only time a South American, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar of Peru, led the UN was from 1982 to 1991.

But it all swings back to Russia, who as a permanent member of the Security Council, along with Britain, China, France and the United States, could wield a heavy hand, more so than in previous election years, in deciding which name the council will nominate to send to the General Assembly for the vote next year.

Russia has not publicly endorsed anyone so far for the post, and the US and other permanent members of the council must approve a name. China, one diplomat on the council said, will align with Russia, while France seems intent on a French-speaking candidate. The US has remained conveniently vague on the topic, but at the debate, Michele Sison, deputy permanent representative, used a “he/she” construct in describing the qualifications of a candidate.

Churkin’s speech left some diplomats dumbfounded. One Latin American diplomat told PassBlue that he wondered why Russia “hated” so many groups — homosexuals and women, to name a few. Russia, for example, tried to block dependents of UN staff members in same-sex marriages from enjoying financial benefits provided to others by the UN. Russia’s plan backfired in a vote held in the General Assembly in March.

Russia is also apparently narrowing the Eastern European contenders even further. One prominent official in the UN Secretariat told PassBlue that Russia will not back any NATO member nation in the region.

The list of Eastern European countries that belong to NATO is long, while the countries not on the list is short and include Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro and Serbia. Ukraine recently announced its plans to join NATO.

Hungary, a member of NATO, couldn’t have been more emphatic about its desires. “Hungary prefers a candidate from Eastern Europe and that the person be a woman,” said Katalin Bogyay, the ambassador to the UN, at the debate.

At the end of the day, however, it was Finland’s sharply worded statement — that the UN continue to promote women to the “top floor” and “corner offices” — that countered most remarkably Russia’s sentiments.

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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