Seton Hall Graduate Degree in International Affairs
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Women Leaders to Watch at the UN’s Big Meet


Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia,
Kersti Kaljulaid, the president of Estonia, after her country’s election to the UN Security Council, June 7, 2019. She is scheduled to speak at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 25. Eastern Europe appears to dominate now with the most female government leaders globally. LOEY FELIPE/UN PHOTO

Men will dominate the podium during much of the United Nations General Assembly but, as Abigail Adams urged her husband and other founding fathers of the United States in 1776, “remember the ladies.” This is advice that the UN needs to be reminded of — just as the opening session begins, on Sept. 17.

Women constitute fewer than 15 percent of world leaders, despite making up 52 percent of the global population. And that’s an upswing — since 2014, the number of women in government-leadership positions has increased by almost 45 percent, to 23 from 16.

During this period, at the General Assembly session only 20 women annually on average have spoken as representatives of the 195 member states and “observer” entities, such as Palestine and the Holy See. Put another way: only 10 percent of the speakers have been women. Currently, Eastern Europe dominates with the most national female leaders globally.

It may be the Dämmerung — twilight — of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship of Germany, and former leaders like Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite and Britain’s Theresa May will be missed, but there is still a range of women to watch for at the GA, as the opening of the annual session is called, including at its climate summit meeting on Sept. 23. Will Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen-age activist, steal that show?

This article was updated on Sept. 20.

Attending and Speaking at UNGA74:

Bangladesh’s Sheikh Hasina  

Hasina, in office since 2009, is the country’s longest-serving prime minister. At last year’s GA, she spoke about the plight of the Rohingya, 1.1 million ethnic Muslims forced from Myanmar, mainly into Bangladesh. This year, look for her to gloss over the state of her nation as she speaks on Sept. 27. Though it has accomplished many development goals, its reported increase in sexual abuse of women and girls has incited protests, and its claim of a democratically elected government is shaky: international observers criticized the 2014 election, and the 2018 election was marred by violence and claims by the opposition of electoral rigging.

Barbados’s Mia Amor Mottley

Prime Minister Mottley is scheduled to debate on the 27th. At last year’s GA, she spoke about cataclysmic weather that has devasted the Caribbean, and she issued dire warnings connecting climate change and threats to human rights and security. As rising tides literally threaten the Caribbean, Mottley is still likely to champion international cooperation to fight the effects of climate change.

Canada’s Julie Payette

Julie Payette is Canada’s governor general, appointed by Queen Elizabeth II. Because she is not an elected representative of Canada — which is competing for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council — and rarely makes high-level international appearances, she is an unexpected choice to speak for the country (on Sept. 24, the same day as Trump and other high-profilers). Prime Minister Trudeau is in the last month of his re-election campaign and will not be attending the GA.

Croatia’s Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic

President Grabar-Kitarovic, a former NATO assistant secretary-general, was recently awarded the Fulbright Association’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award. Under her leadership, Croatia has grown closer to Russia and seemingly more tolerant of ultranationalists, but in her GA debate speech last year she used Croatia’s second-place finish in the World Cup to reaffirm the need for “teamwork” among nations if the relevance of the UN is to be preserved. Scheduled to speak on Sept. 24, she may sidestep her country’s rising right-wing nationalism and possibly address climate change; over 1,000 islands, islets and reefs line Croatia’s coast.

Grabar-Kitarovic, chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, a group of 75 former leaders, will also be representing the organization at Champions for Generation Equality, an event presented by UN Women on Sept. 25.

Estonia’s Kersti Kaljulaid

Kaljulaid, who is scheduled to speak on the 25th, is Estonia’s first female president and the youngest person in her country, 46, elected to the position. She is a true technocrat — under her leadership, Estonia launched a platform that allows citizens to vote and pay taxes online, and more recently it started offering work visas of up to a year to digital nomads. According to Forbes, Estonia, the smallest Baltic state, is home to four start-ups worth over $1 billion each. In previous years at the GA, Kaljulaid emphasized the rule of law and security, as she did when Estonia won a seat on the Security Council for a two-year term beginning in January.

Ethiopia’s Sahle-Work Zewde

Ethiopia’s first female president could make her GA debut on the 26th, as her country confirmed she is coming to the UN. A career diplomat, Zewde was elected in late 2018 after President Mulatu Teshome resigned unexpectedly. She was hailed as a reassuring sign of reform in what had been considered a reactionary country. Together with a progressive prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, Zewde’s election was greeted as a move toward gender equality; today more women hold positions in Ethiopia’s government than ever before.

Georgia’s Salome Zourabichvili

This is the first chance for the former French-born diplomat and now Georgia’s president, Salome Zourabichvili, to speak at the GA. She is her country’s fifth but first female president and a contradiction politically. As a protégé of Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-Western ex-president who is now in exile, her 2018 election was marred by a range of accusations, from physical violence to vote buying. With her election, Central and Eastern Europe collectively have, it appears, four women in top-government positions.

Germany’s Angela Merkel

Chancellor Angela Merkel will make what may be her final appearance at the GA as the leader of Germany, her country’s government finally confirmed. She will speak at the Climate Action Summit on the 23rd, which gives Germany a chance to boast about its ambitions, including going carbon-neutral by 2050. (First, it must close its coal-producing operations, no easy goal.) Merkel, ever practical, was considering who else will be at the GA and potential bilateral meetings she can arrange (no plans to meet with Trump), but she is also invested in the prospects of the Sustainable Development Goals, so will attend that conference as well. The government is organizing a conference with the UN to bring together major players in the Libyan civil war. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, is supposed to speak on Sept. 28, but he is trying to get an earlier slot. He is holding a ministerial-level forum on Sept. 25 on multilateralism with France and dozens of other countries, but Merkel will be gone by then.

Marshall Islands’ Hilde Heine

Last year, President Heine spoke on the pressing need for multilateralism, a rules-based order and addressing climate change, especially for Pacific island states. This year, as climate threats increase, Heine, to speak on the 25th, will again stand up for small, vulnerable nations.

New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Ardern, coming from a small, distant country, arrived at the GA last year with a big splash. This year, Reuters reported on Sept. 17, she is coming and plans to even meet Trump, in their first “bilat” meeting.

Last year, her speech at UNGA went viral — pundits cast it as an antidote to Trump’s — giving Ardern a global audience after taking her baby daughter, Neve, to the GA Hall: Ardern, who was speaking at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit at the time, was the first female government leader to take a child to a meeting at the UN. Her speech propelled Ardern into the spotlight, resulting in a photo spread in Vogue, appearances on TV shows from morning to night and even a new word: Jacindamania.

Norway’s Erna Solberg

Prime Minister Solberg, who is scheduled to speak on Sept. 27, has represented Norway at the GA each year since 2014. With Norway competing with Canada and Ireland to fill one of the two open seats on the Security Council reserved for the Western European and Others regional group for the 2021-22 term, Solberg and other prominent Norwegians are all in this year. She has been called Norway’s Angela Merkel for her ability to blend conservative fiscal policies with liberal social policies.

Slovakia’s Zuzana Caputova

President Caputova’s 2019 campaign slogan was “Stand Up to Evil.” She is the country’s first female president, formerly a public interest lawyer and civil society activist who ran on a liberal platform. In Eastern Europe, a region now known for its strongmen and populist politics, Caputova’s victory stands out for its Western values and gender equality. Making her debut at the GA on Sept. 24, Caputova plans to come out swinging: According to the Slovakian mission to the UN, she will address “subjects close to her priorities — justice, rule of law, environment and climate change.”

Sahle-Work Zewde was a diplomat before becoming Ethiopia’s first female president, in 2018. Her government confirmed she is attending the UN General Assembly’s 74th session.

Attending but not Speaking:

Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen

Frederiksen, who became prime minister last year, got a lot of global air time in August after finding herself plunged in a public spat with Trump when he declared that he wanted the US to buy Greenland, an autonomous Danish territory, and later canceled a state visit to Denmark. Her country is slated to speak on the 28th, but the Danish Parliament opens the week after the GA, and the Danish mission to the UN confirmed that Frederiksen will not remain for the full GA session (which ends Sept. 30).

Iceland’s Katrin Jakobsdottir

Jakobsdottir has been Iceland’s prime minister since 2017 but has never spoken at the General Assembly. The country’s designation for its speaking slot, 17th on the evening of the 27th, was “M,” for minister, so she was not expected to address the Assembly. The Icelandic mission to the UN said Jakobsdottir would be attending only other events, presumably including the Climate Action Summit. Jakobsdottir recently published a well-received op-ed on climate change — Iceland, an island nation, of course, faces particular peril. Like Grabar-Kitarovic of Croatia, Jakobsdottir will be attending the UN Women’s event on Sept. 25 on gender equality.

The current number of male leaders in orange and female leaders in blue. Data sources: IPU, UN Women


Sweden’s Ann Linde

While this list is primarily devoted to heads of state and heads of government at the GA, Linde, Sweden’s new foreign minister, is worth watching. She may be unaccustomed to the UN, but her predecessor, Margot Wallstrom, pioneered feminist foreign policy and helped make it an important factor across the policy spectrum, whether the issue was aid, development or conflict resolution. Though critics question Wallstrom’s ultimate impact, her credo, “Don’t forget to check in with civil society,” rang dear in feminists’ ears.

Wallstrom announced her retirement on Sept. 6. It’s unclear whether Linde, a former trade minister in the ministry of foreign affairs, will be a strong supporter of the country’s pioneering feminist foreign policy. Sweden is scheduled to speak on Sept. 28, with the notation of minister, so that could be Linde’s moment to set her agenda globally.

Blocks representing the number of women speaking at the GA, with a line representing the total number of female world leaders, corresponding to the Y axis. Sources: UN Women, UN and Wikipedia

Not Coming

Austria’s Brigitte Bierlein

Under Austrian tradition, the chancellor does not speak at the GA — that’s the job of the foreign minister. Only once from 2014 to 2018 has a woman spoken on behalf of Austria (Karin Kneissl, in 2018). Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s current minister of foreign affairs, will presumably be speaking this year and not Chancellor Bierlein.

Moldova’s Maia Sandu

Prime Minister Sandu, elected in June, is one of the pro-Western women elected this year across the globe. Her government is an unlikely coalition of a pro-European Union/Western-looking party, ACUM, and the Russophile Socialist Party. Understandably, Sandu’s got a lot going on at home. She will not be debating at the GA this year.

Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, the head of state of Myanmar and a former Nobel Peace laureate, faces international condemnation for her silence during her country’s crushing exile of the Rohingya. Her fall from grace has led to her shunning public appearances in the West.

Namibia’s Saara Kuugongelwa

Prime Minister Kuugongelwa is the longest-serving female head of government in Africa. She is the country’s first female prime minister, and one of only two women to hold top positions in Africa (the other is Sahle-Work Zewde, in Ethiopia). The president of Namibia usually debates at the GA (scheduled for Sept. 25).

Serbia’s Ana Brnabic

Brnabic, the first female and first openly gay prime minister of Serbia, has emphasized international security, regional cooperation and multilateralism during previous GA debates. But her power seems to be ebbing, as President Aleksandar Vucic’s clout gains. If Brnabic is a technocrat, Vucic leans right, and his government is curbing human rights, including that of the LGBTQ communities.

Taiwan’s Tsai Ing Wen

The UN does not recognize Taiwan as an independent sovereign state, bowing to China’s power as a permanent member of the Security Council.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Paula Mae Weekes 

When asked if President Weekes is attending, and as a follow-up, why not, a representative who spoke for the country’s mission to the UN said briskly on the phone: “You only get one question! Good day!” before hanging up. (And a good day to you, too, sir.)

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting. 

This article was updated. 

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

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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