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Three Ex-UN Leaders Form a Women’s Group to Save the World


In Dakar, staff members from UN Women Senegal and other UN agencies attend a presentation on sexual harassment in the workplace, part of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, 2016.

As multilateralism takes a beating from President Trump amid the “new world disorder,” as one European diplomat put it, three women who know the United Nations inside and out through previous top leadership jobs have originated a Group of Women Leaders for Change and Inclusion.

The goal is to bring together former UN female colleagues who held top jobs as well to “partner and raise our voices on matters regarding women equality and multilateralism,” said Susana Malcorra, one of the three women who started the group. “By now we are more than 25 and keep adding.”

The other two former UN leaders behind it are Helen Clark, who ran the UN Development Program from 2009 to 2017 and was the prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008; and Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian politician who was the director-general of Unesco from 2009 to 2017.

They plan to advocate for gender equality and multilateralism through op-eds, papers, conferences, mentoring and other sources in multiple languages “to shed light into matters that each one of us have worked in our different fields of expertise,” Malcorra said.

Malcorra, an Argentine, was the chief of cabinet for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon from 2012 to 2015 and previously led the UN Department of Field Support. She left the UN to become foreign minister for her country under President Mauricio Macri. She left that post in 2017 to move to Madrid to be near her family, she said.

All three women were candidates in 2016 for UN secretary-general, to succeed Ban, a South Korean. Of 13 candidates, seven were women. António Guterres, who ran the UN Refugee Agency for 10 years and was a prime minister of Portugal, was selected by the UN Security Council for a five-year term beginning Jan. 1, 2017. No woman has ever headed the UN.

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The three women are now affiliated with different academia, think tanks and nongovernmental organizations. The idea for the initiative, which has no outside financing yet, came from a conversation among the women, Malcorra said, at last fall’s annual General Assembly open debate. It took shape in November and December, when the “scouting” process began.

“We felt that, as candidates to become SG” — secretary-general — “it would be very powerful to launch this together.”

The trio are introducing the group as the International Women’s Day approaches, on March 8, and the yearly UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) kicks off for 11 days on March 11. They will use their personal Twitter handles to promote the group and these hashtags: #WomenLeadersForPositiveChange;#WomenForMultilateralism; and #WomenLeadersForInclusiveChange.

The timing of the group’s debut coincides as other international efforts to reinforce multilateralism — the policy of countries working jointly to solve global problems — include France and Germany partnering for the first time as rotating presidents of the UN Security Council in March and April, respectively.

The launching also occurs as France and Germany partner more ambitiously to keep Europe unified while Britain exits from the European Union and as some politicians elsewhere on the continent — such as in Hungary and Italy — seem intent on fragmenting it further.

This is a “loosely connected” network of women, former colleagues and friends, Malcorra said of the new group, “who share some serious concerns about the state of the world, the multilateral institutions and, particularly, about a trend to pushback policies regarding gender parity and women empowerment. The signs we see are very worrisome in this regard.”

The group has written an open, two-page letter, which begins: “We join our voices as women colleagues who have worked in governments and in multilateral organizations in support of promoting humanitarian relief, advocating for human rights principles and normative policies, advancing sustainable development, and resolving some of the world’s most complex conflicts.

“We ourselves have leveraged multilateralism in order to drive positive change for peoples and our planet. Now we collectively call attention to the need to achieve full gender equality and empowerment of women across all ambits of society and the critical importance of multilateralism as a vehicle in support of that.”

The space that women leaders now collectively occupy, the letter warned, was “not opened up easily and can never be taken for granted.”

It is signed by, among others, Sahle-Work Zewde, the president of Ethiopia who served as UN envoy to the African Union; Baroness Valerie Amos, a Briton who ran the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs; Ertharin Cousin, an American who directed the World Food Program; Louise Fréchette, a Canadian diplomat who was a UN deputy secretary-general; Navi Pillay, a South African judge who was most recently the UN’s high commissioner for human rights; Mary Robinson, an ex-president of Ireland and former UN high commissioner for human rights; Zainab Bangura, a politician from Sierra Leone who was the UN’s envoy on sexual violence in conflict; and Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan who served as a UN envoy for children and armed conflict.

What can women bring to multilateralism that is different from what men offer?

“What women always bring to the table: a different and enriching perspective,” Malcorra said. “But multilateralism is also key to the advancement of policy discussions about gender as the Beijing Conference [on women in 1995] proved. CSW is not moving as envisioned and we must keep pushing.”

The initiative, Malcorra added, will not finish in March. “We expect to continue until UNGA” — the annual UN General Assembly opening debate, in the fall.


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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Three Ex-UN Leaders Form a Women’s Group to Save the World
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Koki Muli
Koki Muli
3 years ago

A very noble initiative to complement and strengthen existing ones to guarantee synergy and success. I would be delighted to get more information on how to be part and support the movement – only united as many as possible all over the world, shall we truly achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment….

Catherine Wahome
Catherine Wahome
4 years ago

I join you in the struggle to liberate women from patriarchy and be able to achieve gender equality.
I hope to learn more from you .

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