Unless a strong candidate backed by an influential member state comes forward soon, it looks unlikely that Secretary-General António Guterres will be denied a second term and that a woman could be elected to succeed him, starting in 2022. Any challengers for the United Nations’ top leadership post will need to step up in the next month or so to allow enough time for the 193 member states to consider them seriously.
The current president of the General Assembly, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, has announced that deliberations of candidates will begin by May or June. [Update, March 25: Bozkir announced that he intended to “hold the first of the informal dialogues on 7 May 2021 at 10.00 am in the General Assembly Hall. Should further candidates be presented in accordance with resolution 69/321, additional dates may be scheduled.”]
“Technically, there could be someone who arrives at any point before the Security Council makes its recommendation, but in reality, unless they arrive very soon, they’ll have missed the boat,” says Ben Donaldson, a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign, an international coalition of more than 750 civil society groups that played a major role in promoting a more open, inclusive secretary-general selection process in 2016. That is when Guterres, a former Socialist prime minister of Portugal and UN Refugees chief for 10 years, was chosen for the 2017-2021 term.
What had previously been a Vatican-style conclave-like search, the 2016 selection process for secretary-general was transparent as never seen before. Candidates presented vision statements and answered questions in publicized events. Seven of 13 candidates were women, and some were considered serious contenders. After numerous rounds of Security Council straw polls and a final recommendation from the Council, Guterres received a vote of approval from the General Assembly. Feminists around the world were admittedly disappointed.
Since 2016, feminist civil society groups have closely monitored Guterres’s accomplishments and record on women’s rights. He receives positive marks on his work to reach gender parity among appointed top UN leaders and for speaking out about the need to include women in peace-building efforts. He has been outspoken about gender-based violence, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. But he’s getting thumbs down for not finding more funding from governments for UN Women, for allegations of mishandling issues of sexual harassment in the UN and for not doing enough to prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls by UN peacekeepers.
WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW
Guterres formally announced his run for a second term in early January, after much speculation over his intentions. He has yet to share a vision statement, but 1 for 7 Billion hopes he does this soon, so civil society has enough time to scrutinize it and engage with him on his plans for the UN in the next five years. The coalition envisions holding a global town hall in the spring. [Update, March 25: Guterres’s vision statement was released by Bozkir’s office.]
Op-eds have been published by Human Rights Watch, Inter Press Service and PassBlue calling for a woman to be secretary-general. But the chatter for a woman in the job is much quieter than it was in 2016. There are also procedural obstacles to elevating women candidates this year.
Meetings that were supposed to take place in 2020 to decide how an election process involving an incumbent would work did not happen. Instead, the UN was scrambling to go virtual for the first time in its history, as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, locking down the UN in New York City (and, of course, elsewhere). Since there was no time to revisit plans for the 2021 process, the UN rolled over the previous year’s General Assembly resolution providing guidelines for the procedure. That left the UN unprepared when civil society members — four so far — started to throw their names into the ring in February and March.
It’s unclear whether members of civil society will be allowed to run. The four applicants’ names have not been publicly released by Bozkir’s office because they lack national endorsements. Letters from the General Assembly president and the Security Council presidency, opening the selection process in 2015 and 2021, asked member states to provide candidates. Nothing written in these or other documents explicitly prohibits an individual from running without national sponsorship. In press briefings, Brenden Varma, the spokesperson for Bozkir, has only repeated that traditionally, candidates are presented by governments.
“I don’t really have more to add to that,” Varma said at one media briefing, adding, “ultimately it is up to the member states to interpret [the resolutions].”
After weeks of hesitation, Bozkir announced in a March 9 Twitter post that there were four applicants, in addition to Guterres. One applicant is a UN Development Program staffer, Arora Akanksha, who announced her self-nomination in February.
Akanksha, 34, met with Canadian government officials last week — she is a Canadian citizen born in India — but it is unlikely she will receive the government’s endorsement or be accepted as an official candidate by the UN, since she has no international managerial or diplomacy experience. Her campaign is challenging a UN convention under which candidates have typically been diplomats, UN insiders to varying degrees — as Guterres and Kofi Annan were — or former government officials.
WHY IT’S UNLIKELY A WOMAN CANDIDATE WILL APPEAR THIS YEAR
Assuming no member state nominates a contender in the next few months, Guterres, 71, is likely to win re-election. There are plenty of reasons for this, experts say.
First, there is precedent. Nearly every secretary-general has served two consecutive five-year terms. Although there’s no written rule that a secretary-general automatically gets a second term or is bound by term limits, challenging an incumbent would send the message that the person has had poor performance or has run into strong opposition from a powerful member state, which was the fate of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was vetoed by the United States.
Candidates who are playing the long game will wait for the 2027 term; yet the world could see a woman secretary-general this year if not more so in five years, numerous organizations and observers of the UN told PassBlue.
Another disincentive reflects the system’s power balance, which tilts strongly to the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US). A candidate has to be a nearly perfect mixture of international diplomat and manager, defender of human rights and acceptable to 193 member states.
Anne Marie Goetz, a professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, says this secret sauce is a problem because it means a candidate can’t always be relied on to call out powerful states in the Council for a range of human-rights and other globally recognized abuses. This may create an uneven playing field for a woman who dares to speak her mind — and might have been a drawback for some of the seven women in the 2016 race, who generally did poorly in the series of Security Council straw polls.
Women may think it’s politically disadvantageous to run this year because the letter setting out the selection process, signed by Bozkir and the president of the Security Council in February (Ambassador Barbara Woodward of Britain), did not explicitly encourage women to run. These diplomats may not have wanted to appear prejudiced against an incumbent who had announced his candidacy, but the omission has created a less-welcoming dynamic.
Lastly, by starting the selection process late and requiring nominations earlier, the timeline is shorter by nearly four months than in 2016. Encouragement of an early presentation of candidates was also left out of the 2021 letter. The reduced time for potential candidates to prepare their campaign favors the incumbent.
DESPITE THE ODDS, HOW A WOMAN CANDIDATE COULD EMERGE
• If the US wields its power: The new US ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, holds veto power and could change the contest by endorsing a woman candidate or encouraging member states or civil society groups to do so. History says that this is unlikely.
When asked about the election during her first press briefing in March, Thomas-Greenfield, a career diplomat who has run the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, made it clear the US remains publicly neutral, leaving the door open for candidates besides Guterres to run. (Though she did say the question was a “loaded” one.)
“We will support the most qualified candidate for the job, but we absolutely believe and support diversity,” she said. “We want to support gender balance and we will look at the candidates who are presented to us and review them accordingly.”
• Grass-roots’ soft power: Multiple civil society groups and member states could combine forces to process backing for a candidate. A new grass-roots campaign, called “Forward,” for example, is soliciting submissions for women nominees only, one of whom could become the world’s “people-backed” candidate.
• Through a twist on member state nominations: Candidates could be backed by a group of member states, which might be the easiest approach since it avoids a unilateral commitment. Or candidates could be backed by member states other than their own, which could allow them to move ahead without an endorsement from their own government.
• By continuous advocacy with Guterres: If he wins a second term, member states, governments, civil society groups and NGOs can keep him accountable to his word on advancing women’s rights initiatives in the meantime. And by 2026, the last year of his term, groups can convince him to strongly encourage if not endorse a woman candidate for secretary-general in the next term.
• Guterres could make the move himself: He could say he is retiring and step down now. He said in a 2019 video message: “Gender equality is essentially a question of power. We live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture . . . changing this culture means challenging stereotypes and addressing power imbalances. All of us can be agents of change.” Guterres may not have any real influence over the Security Council’s decisions for selecting a new secretary-general, but his public platform allows him to spotlight and pressure the institution itself.
Code Blue, a campaign focused on sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and part of AIDS-Free World, a US-based nongovernmental organization, suggested last month that Guterres could step aside for a woman candidate.
• With more women on the Security Council: Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, chief executive of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, an NGO, says that when the 15 members of the Security Council — five with permanent seats and 10 elected to two-year terms — focus on a candidate’s qualifications and not primarily on the countries’ own interests, woman candidates stand a fairer chance.
“Because women tend to work collaboratively, more women permanent members in the Security Council can generate greater support for women candidates, or at the very least, endure an objective consideration of the candidates’ qualifications,” Cabrera-Balleza says.
• If the selection process is changed: Large, comprehensive changes in the UN system are unlikely to happen quickly, but it is possible to reform the procedure of choosing a secretary-general, some UN specialists say.
Paula Donovan, a co-director of AIDS-Free World, says there’s a two-pronged approach to creating changes: The General Assembly of 193 member states and their capitals first have to agree to persuade the Security Council to change the process. Then the unwritten rules of the UN that instill the “boys’ club” culture must be challenged by a groundswell of global political movements that pressure diplomats, like MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
WHY HAVING A WOMAN SECRETARY-GENERAL MATTERS OVERALL
Having women leaders at the top of corporations, governments and other big institutions has become not only a mark of modernity but also an economic necessity. While there have been prime ministers, presidents and now a woman vice president of the US and the head of the World Trade Organization, the UN has never had a woman leader in its 76-year history.
Believers in the UN claim it’s still relevant because it’s the globe’s only public organization that can do significant good work through the convening power of the General Assembly and, to some extent, the more potent Security Council, when its members unify on an agenda.
Critics say the UN is no longer relevant because, more often than not, it has failed to take action beyond rhetoric and that it lacks accountability and does only what suits the five superpowers. A woman secretary-general could shift direction at the UN by increasing the credibility of multilateralism — countries working together to solve global crises — some experts contend.
“A feminist woman leader would be great and is important because it represents a challenge to the male-dominated culture of global affairs,” Goetz says. “A female leader would project an image of women’s equality and power . . . and seeing that the UN can walk its own talk.”
A range of international studies in the last year has documented how important women’s roles have been during the pandemic, with working moms having to drop out of the labor force for caretaking duties at home, causing ripples in national economies. Women make up most of the world’s frontline health care workers. Women and girls are the most vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and suffering in war-torn regions of the world, yet women are excluded at most peace talk tables.
Madeleine Rees, the secretary-general of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a global NGO focused on women’s roles in war and peace, says a woman leader would alter how decisions are made at the UN because men don’t share women’s intrinsic understanding of the world. This can have a direct effect on people’s lives.
“At the moment, there’s no single example where women’s participation [in peace talks] is real, with the exception of Ireland,” Rees says, referring to the 1998 Good Friday peace process. “There might be women in mediation situations, but there’s no gender lens and perspective. Who are we actually talking to? We need to bring actual women affected by war into the conversation.”
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, between 1992 and 2019, on average, women constituted only 13 percent of negotiators, 6 percent of mediators and 6 percent of signatories in major peace processes worldwide.
“It’s not just about getting women at the peace negotiation table. It is also about redesigning the table,” Cabrera-Balleza says about peace-building.
CURRENT AND FUTURE POSSIBILITIES
Ben Donaldson of the 1 for 7 Billion network says that if just one serious candidate emerges, others will too. And while it may be difficult for a sole challenger to stand against an incumbent, being an official candidate could be a profile-builder for the person, since 193 countries will know his or her name and credentials.
“Last time around, there were a lot of candidates who weren’t necessarily in with a good chance of being secretary-general but stood for strategic reasons and have since gone on to get other international jobs,” Donaldson says.
Cabrera-Balleza says that having women candidates step up now sends a message that there is no shortage of qualified women for the UN’s top position. “This can deepen the bench of candidates and strengthen our messaging in the next election cycle.”
One prominent figure mentioned as a desirable candidate among women’s NGOs is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia. Many people say she would be a proven feminist leader and hope she could be persuaded to run for secretary-general in five years. Rees says if Gbowee runs in 2026, she would support her candidacy.
“It’s time we moved away from the traditional ways of sustaining patriarchal systems by having secretary-generals who are sons of those systems,” Rees says. “We need radical change. Leymah would certainly bring that: a feminist, a Nobel peace laureate, someone who has real lived experience of war and bringing peace. She would know how to achieve peace in the multilateral system.”
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This article was updated on March 25 to include the announcement that Volkan Bozkir, president of the General Assembly will hold informal dialogues on May 7, 2021 in the General Assembly Hall with candidates. The article was also updated to include Secretary-General Guterres’s vision statement.
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Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.