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New Snags for Women Running in the UN Secretary-General Race


Vesna Pusic, former foreign minister of Croatia, at a NATO meeting in 2014 in Wales. CREATIVE COMMONS
Vesna Pusic, ex-foreign minister of Croatia, at a NATO event in 2014. CREATIVE COMMONS

The only official female candidate in the competition so far to become the next United Nations secretary-general may already be in flux. Just a few weeks have passed since the Croatian government sent a letter to the UN nominating Vesna Pusic, a former foreign minister, but her candidacy may be uncertain because of a change in government.

Two Bulgarian women have stronger profiles than Pusic’s, but their government has yet to support them through required UN channels.

Pusic, 62, is one of three candidates whose names have been formally submitted for the UN’s highest job as of now. The others are Srgjan Kerim, 67, a former foreign minister of Macedonia and diplomat at the UN, whose resume says he speaks nine languages; and Igor Luksic, 39, of Montenegro, currently deputy prime minister and foreign minister (and a former prime minister). Both are remote possibilities for being elected to the UN position.

Eastern Europe, which has never had a secretary general, is slated to be the regional focus for candidates to take the place of Ban Ki-moon, a Korean who finishes his second five-year term on Dec. 31. The UN has never had a female secretary-general, so the pressure is building for one to be selected, even at the male-dominated UN.

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Until Jan. 22, Pusic was the foreign minister of Croatia, a member of the European Union since 2013. She was nominated as a candidate in September 2015 for UN secretary-general by Zoran Milanovic, who led Croatia’s Social Democrat government at the time.

Milanovic sent a last-minute letter dated Jan. 5, 2016 signed by him to the UN General Assembly and to the Security Council. The letter was sent to both bodies to comply with new procedures approved by the Security Council in December. But Milanovic’s government was replaced with a new coalition soon after his letter arrived at the UN, so Pusic is out of a job. Whether the new government will stand by her candidacy is unclear.

Tanya Domi, a human-rights expert on the Western Balkans who teaches at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, said in an interview that Pusic is a liberal progressive who is “pro-gay, a feminist and pro human rights.” Those positions may put her in difficult straits with the new Croatian government, she said, which includes a majority of members from the conservative Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ.

“They won’t push for her,” Domi said of Pusic, who was a sociologist before she entered politics in 2000. She is credited with ushering the country’s entry into the European Union.

The new government, however, may not withdraw Pusic’s name if it is smart, said one European diplomat working in New York who spoke off the record.

The race for the UN secretary-general job is evolving from its longstanding secretive deal-making process into a potentially more open method that culminates later this year, so the race is in its early stages. Social media will undoubtedly play a more active role in the outcome than ever before. In keeping with the UN’s penchant for vagueness, it is not definite when the final vote will occur this year. The new secretary-general must take office on Jan 1, 2017.

Strides to open the process by civil society and UN member states include a daring new feature — for the UN — that requires candidates to submit formal letters publicly declaring their interest in the race, hence the current three. The candidates’ countries generally nominate them, as has been the case in the past, but it is not an ironclad rule.

The European diplomat said that candidates would have to be nominated by a member state in the new process; otherwise it would be a free-for-all that the Security Council could exploit. The new steps could inspire other novel ways to nominate candidates, such as several countries coalescing around a single candidate, as a top UN official suggested.

Pusic’s name stirred only relative excitement at the UN, as she is not a household name. Balkan-watchers like Domi think highly of her. Croatia is also more Eurocentric than many of its Eastern European neighbors, but the country, Domi conceded, “is not in the driver’s seat” to seize the UN post, given HDZ’s influence in the government.

In addition, Russia would not be likely to back Pusic because of her pro-LBGT stance, Domi said.

It is the Bulgarians who appear to have the best chance now to win the secretary-general seat, but the government has not backed either of the two women who have stood ahead of the Eastern European pack. Bulgaria may have given the nod to Bokova last year, but no letter has been sent to the UN endorsing her, according to the president’s office of the General Assembly.

The government, in fact, has “messed it up” for the two candidates, the European diplomat said. “They should never have allowed internal politics to be mentioned in terms of candidacies — it’s the silliest thing you could have done.”

Irina Bokova, 63, the head of Unesco, the Paris-based agency, is a Moscow-educated bureaucrat who besides her native language speaks English, French, Russian and Spanish. She is struggling to hold a lead over another more upstart Bulgarian, Kristalina Georgieva, a European Commission vice president in charge of budgets and human resources.

Georgieva, 62, belongs to the party of Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boiko Borisov, who leads a minority coalition government, therefore his reluctance to speak out on the subject lest he alienate the other political parties like HDZ. It is unknown if the nomination of either candidate will cancel the other’s nomination, should another country support her.

That is why the UN official suggested that a group of countries, like the Baltics, could endorse one of the two Bulgarians to ensure both women have a chance.

Kristalina Georgieva in Athens in December signing papers for the European Commission
Kristalina Georgieva, a Bulgarian, in Athens in December for the European Commission.

Recently, The Economist said that Borisov was friendlier with Georgieva but preferred to keep her in the European Commission for tactical reasons. Bokova is tied to the political opposition in Bulgaria but has allies in a small but important party in the governing coalition that has threatened to pull out of the government unless Borisov backs Bokova.

Georgieva is much admired in Europe for her smooth way with numbers and her charm; her English is good; her French and Russian, not so good. Bokova is more reserved and may be better liked by Russians, who have veto power over the vote on any candidate, as do the rest of the Security Council permanent members: Britain, China, France and the United States.

Britain has declared its support for a female candidate without naming anyone; China will probably vote for a woman to appease the Group of 77 developing nations, of which it is a member.

Russia, the European diplomat conjectured, might not want a candidate from the European Union, of which Bulgaria is a member. Unesco, the diplomat added, is one of the weakest agencies in the UN brood and Bokova’s profile is not as “solid” as Georgieva’s.

Georgieva spoke from Brussels to the press at the UN in New York in January by live video about a humanitarian aid proposal she prepared with others on a high-level panel. At the end of her spiel to the media, she pointedly apologized for not looking straight into the camera for the audience in New York.

Ban Ki-moon supposedly favors Georgieva. He appointed her as a co-leader of the humanitarian aid panel last year and sat beside her at a conference in Dubai recently. Her role on the panel is making her a more frequent visitor to the US as she speaks at a think tank in Washington, D.C. and at Yale University on Feb. 2.

She has not said anything publicly about wanting the UN job. Nevertheless, she has vocalized her ideas on revamping humanitarian aid financing. (Rich countries need to give more.) Her international travel has been criticized by a British parliamentarian, who found her trips outside Europe beyond her purview on budgets.

Despite Bulgaria’s silence on Bokova versus Georgieva, “Bulgarians have a lot in their favor,” Domi said of the race, adding that Eastern Europe is not about to budge from its preferred status as the next region to head the UN.

Irina Bokova
Irina Bokova, another Bulgarian, is running. 

Russia, considered part of the region in UN terms, has not declared a preference for a specific Eastern Europe candidate yet. When Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, was asked by PassBlue in December if Russia supported a female secretary-general, she said, “He’s not against it.”

To complicate Eastern Europe’s chances, Portugal has announced that António Guterres, who was until Dec. 31 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is now a candidate from his country, although a letter to the UN has not been posted. Such a submission is the only path to an official candidacy, the press chief for the office of the General Assembly presidency insisted.

Guterres is perfect, an academic observer of the UN in New York put it; besides being a known quantity, he is equipped with the bona fides needed to steer the UN in the next term as an expert on the refugee crisis roiling Europe.

Meanwhile, Latin America, a much more coherent pack of nations than those in Eastern Europe, is running an alternative campaign to fill any void left by Eastern Europe’s vacillation.

Many female candidates’ names have surfaced; Colombia’s foreign minister, María Ángela Holguín, 52, may be the latest applicant. Her country, finishing a peace deal to end its 51-year-long war with the rebel group FARC, just asked the Security Council to oversee the disarmament role in the peace agreement, an unusual move that left some Council diplomats beaming with pride for once.

Moreover, Colombia’s ambassador to the UN, María Emma Vejía, heads a campaign with dozens of other UN member states to elect a female secretary-general. Michelle Bachelet, 64, president of Chile, another name bandied about for a long while, said at a forum last fall in New York that she was not interested in being secretary-general. That could be posturing that would enable her to jump in at a certain moment, the European diplomat suggested.

The secretary-general race has long featured Helen Clark, 65, who leads the UN Development Program and is a former prime minister of New Zealand. The UN Development Program’s board of auditors said in January, among other indirect criticisms, that it wondered “about the decrease of reported cases of fraud or presumptive fraud, from 38 cases in 2013 to 27 cases in 2014.” It added, “We hope this is evidence of management’s devotion to stamping out potential fraud, and not due merely to a decrease in reporting.”

The European diplomat thought Clark had a better chance for the post than a Latin American because her resume was “still viable” and she is from the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) coalition in the UN. So if Eastern Europe doesn’t get organized, the Council could turn to the Western Europe group (which includes Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US) to pick a person.

The process has another new element: candidates are encouraged to “apply” for the job through “hearings” with the General Assembly, which consists of all 193 UN members, and the Security Council, which consists of 10 elected members and the nonelected members, the P5.

The nature of the hearings is classically unclear; will they begin in April or May? The General Assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft, has vowed to start them by spring and to keep them public, but it’s anyone guess if the Security Council will hold open sessions. That could depend on who holds the Council’s monthly rotating presidency: in April that will be China; in May, Egypt.

“It will be a bit weird to have an open session” in the Assembly and a closed meeting in the Council, the European diplomat said.

Estonia, a Baltic nation, is tasked with improving the working methods of selecting a secretary-general at the UN through the 27-member nation Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group. The format for the hearings, said Minna-Liina Lind, Estonia’s deputy permanent representative, is being worked out in the General Assembly. As to how the Council will handle them is up to those members, she said.

Lind said that Estonia had no favorite contender from Eastern Europe, but like many other countries, it was “hoping for more women to come forward as candidates.”

[This article was updated on Feb. 2.]

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

Dulcie Leimbach

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, The Hague and Cyprus). 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. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver. 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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