The first woman scheduled to speak at this year’s opening session of the United Nations General Assembly is 53rd on the list of about 119 heads of state — President Zuzana Caputova of Slovakia — delivering her remarks on Sept. 23. The day before, the first of the big gathering, will not feature any women at all, according to a provisional agenda issued by the head of the Department for General Assembly and Conference Management, Movses Abelian.
Althought the UN makes the schedule on a first-come-first-serve basis, some member states believe other factors are taken into account, and if so, gender should be a top consideration.
The lineup has upset at least some Western countries, so a few of those that will be represented by women — from heads of state to ministers to delegates — at this year’s debate told PassBlue they were working on an official reaction to require that more women be moved up in the list. The annual session, to be held virtually with prerecorded speeches sent by world leaders because of the pandemic, coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing. It’s therefore especially painful for some countries that so few women in total — 11, it appears, so far — are scheduled to speak at the “high-level” session, from Sept. 22-29.
Among the first-day speakers are leaders from Brazil, the United States, France, Chile, China, Turkey, Cuba, Russia, Iran, Qatar and South Africa — nary a woman in the mix.
“As UNGA approaches and we celebrate the 75th anniversary,”’ Isabel Saint Malo, a former vice president of Panama, told PassBlue, “I regret that a small number of women will be addressing the General Assembly. The UN, as custodian to Agenda 2030 and development objectives, should be a leading example in terms of representation and inclusion. However, what we see at the UN is parallel to representation in other spaces.”
Some countries are also trying to get more women to speak earlier in the week by asking countries to voluntarily swap places with a woman speaker. They also considered sending a letter to Secretary-General António Guterres, since one of his priorities is gender equality. A member state also apparently suggested the idea of mixing up heads of state and government, as some heads of government are de facto leaders of their country. But this idea was said to be blocked by the Group of 77, the coalition of developing countries plus China.
“It just struck me when I first took a look at the list,” a Western diplomat told PassBlue. “And what strikes me even more is that nobody really raised the issue so far.” The diplomats who are trying to change the lineup do not want to use their names for fear of looking self-promotional, they said.
The lack of women leaders illustrates how few occupy the top jobs in national governments. In 2020, only 22 countries among the 193 UN member states have female heads of government. At last year’s General Assembly debate, of the 83 world leaders speaking on the first two days, Sept. 24 and 25, only 5 were women. The first day featured three of them: New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and, once again, Slovakia’s Caputova. Last year, only 12 women spoke.
President Caputova took office in June 2019 and addressed the General Assembly for the first time last year. Right now, Caputova is preceded by a day and a half of an all-male roster, starting on Sept. 22 and running through midday on Sept. 23.
“The speaker’s list, according to the [UN] Secretariat, is on a first-come-first-serve basis,” a Western diplomat told PassBlue, “but by looking at the first 15 speakers on the list, you don’t need to be a UN expert to understand there’s something else going on. If other things are being taken into account, why isn’t gender?”
According to a letter sent by Abelian of the UN Secretariat, the list may be based on whoever sends his or her name in first, but it also considers “expressions of preferences” by member states and “existing traditions,” such as Brazil going first and the US, as host country, next. Once again, the opening speakers this year will feature strongmen, like last year, albeit virtually: Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, US President Trump, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Xinping. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not far behind — seventh, after Cuba and before Jordan.
Brenden Varma, the spokesperson for the president-elect of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, said in an email to PassBlue: “It is up to Member States to decide who will represent them at the UN General Debate, and the list of speakers reflects how many women currently serve as leaders throughout the world. In line with the President-elect’s prioritization of gender equality and women’s empowerment, he supports women’s political participation, and his office will be looking for opportunities for women leaders to participate in General Assembly activities throughout the session.”
New women are speaking at this year’s debate. They include the interim president of Bolivia, Jeanine Áñez, who took over that role after Evo Morales was forced to resign from power last year; the prime minister of Belgium, Sophie Wilmès, who was her country’s interim prime minister until she formed a government in early 2020; and Katrin Eggenberger, the foreign minister of Liechtenstein since November 2019. The other women scheduled to speak are from Bangladesh, Barbados, Denmark, Estonia, Norway and Switzerland.
Norway sent an email about the topic, attributed to Ine Eriksen Soreide, the first female foreign minister, saying: “Our government has worked systematically to promote gender equality. It’s no coincidence that our delegation is headed by Prime Minister Ms. Erna Solberg, and our Permanent Representative is Ms. Mona Juul. Every year I hope there’s more female speakers on the list. Women’s rights and the women, peace and security agenda are top priorities in our foreign policy and development cooperation.”
Belgium told PassBlue that it was not disappointed with its slot on the schedule, Day 5, as the country is being represented by a head of government, not head of state, so it naturally goes later in the week. “Belgium is happy to have, for the first time, a female head of government speaking,” Philippe Kridelka, Belgium’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue. “Prime Minister Wilmès is also very happy to be speaking in person, as female head of government, at the Beijing+25 summit, which will take place later during the high-level opening week of UNGA75.”
The two women who attracted positive international attention for their success battling the Covid-19 pandemic in their countries, Germany’s Angela Merkel and New Zealand’s Ardern, are not listed as speakers on the provisional agenda. This is Merkel’s last term as chancellor, as she has said she is not seeking re-election. Ardern stole the General Assembly show in 2018 when she brought her newborn, Neve Te Aroha, to New York City all the way from New Zealand.
The burning question is whether Trump will come to the UN to deliver his speech. Due to restrictions related to the coronavirus outbreak, global leaders’ prerecorded videos will be broadcast in the General Assembly Hall and introduced by their top diplomats, who work in New York City. However, the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, said in July that Trump planned to go to the UN in September to deliver his speech in person. The UN could not confirm whether such a request was made from the US mission to the UN, but a security official told PassBlue that the UN is preparing for Trump’s visit, in case he shows up.
Trump said in mid-August at a media briefing: “Thinking about going. I’m thinking — I think it’s appropriate. If we can do it, I’ll do it directly. I’d rather be at the United Nations — deliver it.”
Since this year’s session is virtual, it will feature an unprecedented number of heads of state; normally, 70 to 80 heads of state address the debate; this year, it should be around 119, according to the current list.
North Korea is scheduled to speak last, and it appears it will be done by a delegate based in New York City. Russia’s government tweeted on Sept. 8 that President Putin “will not come to New York for the UN General Assembly session, as the epidemiological situation in the #US remains unstable. Putin would address the 75th session of the #UNGA75 in a video format.”
Although Israel’s speaker is designated as “HG,” or head of government, which means Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled, the date is Sept. 29, the final day of the debate. A UN official in charge of the roster explained that it is due to either a special request from the country or a procedural matter.
According to New York State public health rules, anyone who comes to the US from most countries must quarantine for 14 days, including diplomats and heads of state. Guterres was said to have self-quarantined in August after he took a two-week vacation in Portugal.
Isabel Saint Malo, who was vice president of Panama from 2014 to 2019 and the first woman in the role, said, “In 2020, 75 years after the creation of the United Nations and centuries of efforts for advancement, this is no longer acceptable.”
This article was updated to reflect that Nepal’s head of state is not a woman, but its president is, though she is not speaking.
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.