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Rosemary DiCarlo, the Top-Ranking American at the UN, Describes Her Work Crisscrossing the World


Rosemary DiCarlo, the highest-ranking US official at the UN,
Rosemary DiCarlo, the highest-ranking US official at the UN, is the first person to lead the newly created Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. Being the first woman in the post, she said, is a “heavy burden,” as she acts as a model for aspiring men and women at the organization. JOE PENNEY

On a busy day of a busy week and year, Rosemary DiCarlo, the United Nations under secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, spoke frankly in an interview about her role as the first woman to be appointed to this position and as the highest-ranking American now serving the UN.

DiCarlo discussed the challenges and rewards that come with the job of the newly created Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, which joins two arms of some of the UN’s most prominent work. In the interchange with DiCarlo, held in her office on the 35th floor of the UN Secretariat in New York in late November, she also talked candidly about Security Council Resolution 1325 and the women, peace and security agenda, which mandates women’s equal participation in peace work globally.

She also described the pace of her traveling — such as four cities in four countries in nine days as well as a trip in December to Doha and Ukraine.

In May 2018, DiCarlo was appointed by Secretary-General António Guterres to her UN post. In this role, she advises him on peace and security issues while overseeing initiatives and field-based political missions focusing on peacemaking, preventive diplomacy and peace-building activities worldwide. Bringing more than 35 years of experience in public service and academia to her current work, she has easily transitioned from international to national service and back again.

Her first job was at Unesco, and she later moved to the US State Department. Among her many functions there, she was the deputy permanent representative to the UN under Ambassador Susan Rice. DiCarlo became acting US ambassador when Rice was named national security adviser by President Obama. DiCarlo also served as director of UN Affairs at the National Security Council in Washington, D.C.

DiCarlo graduated from Brown University with a B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature as well as Slavic languages and literature. She speaks French and Russian and was raised in Providence, R.I. She is married to Thomas Graham, a former US Foreign Service officer.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Joanne Myers: As you may know, a major focus of PassBlue in covering the UN is reporting on human rights, especially as it relates to women. Therefore, it’s gratifying to know that from the start of his term in 2017, Secretary-General Guterres has advocated for advancing the careers of women and seeking gender parity to counteract the reality that women have traditionally been underrepresented in high office at the UN. As the first woman to lead the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, he seems to be making good on his promise. What has this experience been like for you?

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Rosemary DiCarlo: First of all, I really admire the secretary-general and his efforts to push forward the gender parity strategy. He has a strategy and policy here at headquarters but also in the field. For me, I was thrilled to take on this position. As you know, I did a lot of UN work in my past and was very happy to be in a position where I felt I could make a difference. Obviously, being the first female has its advantages, but it’s also quite daunting. I think I was a novelty, to be honest, and I think people have given me the benefit of the doubt. But I also know that it is just not about me in my success, it’s about the success of all women who come after me. I would say there is a heavy burden, to make sure that I do justice to this position, that I also help many others — not only women but men who are trying to work their way up to senior positions in the UN and elsewhere. I think it is very important that I set a model for them.

JM: You are not only the first woman to hold this position but you are also the highest-ranking American at the UN. How challenging  is it to navigate among the UN, Washington and the international community?

RD: First of all, it’s different being on what I would say is the other side of the street. I used to work across the street at the US mission to the UN. The change from being a US diplomat to an international civil servant was not a difficult one for me. My early career began at Unesco. I started out right after grad school as an international civil servant and moved to national service. Now, I’m back with the UN and there’s no question that it is different. We have to take into consideration the views of 193 member states. We also obviously uphold the Charter and the principles in which this organization is based. There is a balancing act, and very much of what we do in order to work with all the sides is to come together and have a consensus on issues. This job for me is challenging because it’s the first time in my life I’ve dealt with the whole world. Yes, I’ve done various regions as a US diplomat. Also, working at the US mission to the UN, I covered a lot of issues on the Security Council, but now I’m dealing with the whole world.

JM: While the secretary-general has placed more women in leadership positions, the UN itself, especially on issues of peace and security, has been slow in acting on women’s concerns. In 2020, we will be coming up on the 20th anniversary of Resolution 1325, which was the first Security Council document acknowledging that women’s roles and rights were globally threatened. The resolution requires that parties in a conflict prevent violations of women’s rights by underscoring participation, prevention, protection, relief and recovery. To date, only 80 countries have devised national action plans to carry out the women, peace and security agenda. Despite these commitments, the status of women’s roles and rights are in peril. What have you found to be the biggest obstacles to recognizing that women and gender issues should play an important role in peace and security?

RD: We’ve obviously made progress in the last 20 years. Still, we see some backtracking, which is most worrisome. We have the resolutions. We have the norms. We have the tools in place. We just need action now. We need implementation. I think that is extremely important. We have challenges in many of the areas where my department and the envoys with whom I work are trying to resolve conflicts around the world but have seen a resistance to including women. Still, it is our policy at the UN to have substantial numbers of women in any peace process — in any negotiating situation.

JM: Are there certain strategies that are more effective in ensuring women’s equal participation in peace processes?

RD: When we are leading in a process, we can make that happen more often than if we are just supporting another process. I’ll give you an example: Syria. UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen launched the constitutional committee over a week ago in Geneva. He ensured that 30 percent of participation in that conference were women. He will continue to do so, even though it is challenging — sometimes very challenging.

Another example: we had a situation in Yemen, when a year ago, our envoy finally was able to get the warring parties to the table for an agreement for a cease-fire in Hodeidah, but he still was not able to get sufficient numbers of women to be in the delegation. Consequently, we brought in our own women.

We also have an advisory group that advises the special envoy [for Yemen] on various aspects that pertain to women in the discussions. In my department, we recently issued a new policy on women, peace and security. We are mandating that our special envoys and special representatives report on women’s issues when they do their periodic reports and brief the Security Council. We have made it very clear that women’s issues are important. To this end, we have made funds available for various activities to include women in not only peace processes but political processes in various countries.

JM: How often do you think countries sign on to the recommendations of Security Council Resolution 1325 to appear as if they are supporting women, but in the long run, they have no intention of doing so?

RD: Obviously, I think that there’s a lot of peer pressure anywhere, and certainly there’s peer pressure here at the United Nations. Many sign up in good faith, but then realize that it’s much more difficult on the ground to include women. We see this time and again. We see this in elections, for example, and in approval processes. We see this when it comes to, again, peace processes and general political issues. While the challenge is to get the women in those leadership positions, I do think it makes a difference to have women leaders, whether they be special envoy, or special representatives, or an under secretary-general, or a minister, or the head of an electoral commission. We are making it very clear that women must be included. Once they’re there, I think it’s also a challenge and a responsibility to keep supporting them in those positions, so that they can actually pursue the various aspects of the women, peace and security agenda.

JM: How can the recommendations of Resolution 1325 be carried out to make sure that women attain those leadership positions in peace talks?

RD: Basically, it’s through dialogue and discussion. I’ll give you an example. In Somalia, the head of their central electoral commission is a female. She is working very hard in promoting legislation to ensure that there are enough women on the ballot when they have elections in 2020-2021. It’s a question of supporting those who are there but also in making it very clear to leaders that there needs to be more women in leadership positions. I think that we’ve done a lot of work in training women mediators. We work very closely with the African Union, which has its own initiative in promoting African women in various political and leadership positions. It is not easy work. It takes time and it needs to be pursued with vigor.

JM: A major concern is that at the end of a conflict, when warring factions are brought to the negotiating table, they do not include women, who have been most affected by the conflict. What is being done to bring women to negotiations?

RD: We work with a number of women-mediator networks. There’s a Nordic network, there’s an African network and one in the Middle East. We’ve done some training programs with them. We actually held a session here not long ago that the International Peace Institute [in New York] hosted with representatives from each of the networks who work not only within their networks but with each other and with some regional organizations as well. Slowly but surely, we’re seeing progress being made. We also see some backtracking; especially with new [UN] resolutions. We’ll see how we fare next year. We’re also going to be doing Beijing plus 25. [Commemorating the anniversary of the Fourth World Conference promoting gender equality.] Of course, we will be commemorating that as well as the 20th anniversary of women, peace and security. But as I said, we have the tools in place, we have the resolutions, we need action.

JM: What are the biggest obstacles that preclude men from encouraging women to come to the negotiating table?

RD: In some cases, this is something new to certain societies, in seeing so many women taking the lead and moving forward. I think also that sometimes it’s frankly lack of thought to include or to make sure that there’s women’s issues on the agenda. It’s very important to explain and make clear the impact that conflict has on women and children, who are often the most vulnerable. And when one sees what the effect is, it becomes very clear that women’s issues have to be taken into account during the peace process and that women should be there to also speak for themselves.

JM: Considering the tense international landscape, it seems that you’ve been traveling a lot. Recently, you were crisscrossing the Middle East, followed by back-to-back travel to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia. Could you share some of your travel stories?

RD: My travels have taken me to a number of different places. The last trip, I did four cities in four countries in nine days. I’m very fortunate in that I have very good support from my team here, but also very good support from UN colleagues in the field. My department has a number of missions in the field. I also travel to a lot of places where there aren’t established [UN] missions, but we do have resident coordinators, we have country teams, and the various UN funds and programs, who are also very supportive.

It’s been exciting. I have to say, I’ve been to places I never thought I would travel to in my life. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. But I also have learned how dangerous it can be to be a UN official in certain parts of the world. We’ve had attacks on our mission in Somalia, twice. We had an attack recently on the UN officials in Afghanistan. And I’d have to say that I truly admire my colleagues in the field who take on these difficult jobs that are not only in difficult places, but, let’s say, their living circumstances are also dangerous.

It’s been a treat for me, to be honest, to be at the table with leaders around the world and having discussions on a range of issues. What I do find, and I think this is genuine, is that the UN is welcome in many, many countries in all of the countries that I visited thus far. I think that is because we do our best to try to accommodate the needs of the country in question.

JM: Do you ever have time to sample the local culture or to engage with civil society? Or is the visit just to meet the country’s leader and then leave?

RD: It’s very difficult to do that much in visiting the local culture. Although what I try to do in every place that I visit is to meet with civil society and a lot of women’s groups. Even when it’s a broader group, there are always women who represent women’s organizations who are included. I have some hosts that are absolutely adamant that I see some of their society. Showing respect for other societies and interest and in their cultures is really important.

JM: As a woman in a leadership role and a trailblazer, what advice would you give to others as they enter the fray and want to engage in the international community? What are your goals?

RD: I always felt that in throughout my career, my life, that I had to work harder, because I was a woman. I couldn’t go to a meeting if I didn’t know every talking point; if I hadn’t covered all the issues at hand beforehand to ensure that I would present well. I think that this is often a tendency of women, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. I think the hard work is extremely important, especially to keep oneself on track with the priorities that are either determined by the organization or works for one’s own priorities. I think also one cannot be daunted. It is not easy entering a man’s world. I think that there has to be a certain amount of thick skin to it. On the other hand, what I would say to most women are two things: One is just be yourself and believe in yourself. And I think also that you have to like what you’re doing, to do what you feel you’re good at, and that’s what will make you successful.

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

Joanne Myers is director of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ Public Affairs Programs, for which she is responsible for planning and organizing more than 50 public programs a year, many of which have been featured on C-SPAN’s Booknotes.

Previously, Myers was director of the Consular Corps/Deputy General Counsel at the New York City Commission for the United Nations, Consular Corps and Protocol, where she acted as the liaison between the mayor of New York and the consulates general. Myers holds a J.D. from the Benjamin C. Cardozo School of Law and a B.A. in international relations from the University of Minnesota.

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Rosemary DiCarlo, the Top-Ranking American at the UN, Describes Her Work Crisscrossing the World
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