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Six Latin American Women Who Could Be the UN Leader Down the Road

Silvia Rucks, a Uruguayan who is the United Nations resident coordinator in Chile, July 30, 2018. She is one of six Latin American women whose names are being informally mentioned as potential candidates to run for UN secretary-general, most likely for the five-year term starting in 2027. CARLOS VERA/CEPAL

Six Latin American names are being circulated in regional political circles as possible candidates to become the first woman to lead the United Nations, while the current secretary-general, António Guterres, will most likely be re-elected for the upcoming five-year term, starting in 2022. So women appear to be lining up to cast their names for the term thereafter.

Despite Guterres having no official national challengers so far, six civil society applicants have submitted their names for this year’s selection process, a spokesperson for the General Assembly president’s office confirmed recently. Their names have not been released publicly, and the holdup appears to be tied to the applicants’ lacking an official endorsement from a UN member state.

It’s a typical UN loop-de-loop: A General Assembly resolution guiding the selection process “emphasizes in particular that the process of selection of the Secretary-General shall be guided by the principles of transparency and inclusiveness” — without stating explicitly that candidates must have national backing. The wording in a letter to UN member states from the presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council, who are in charge of the selection process this year, only says that nations “presenting candidates should do so in a letter” to the respective presidents.

The resolution also stresses “the need to ensure equal and fair distribution based on gender and geographical balance” and “invites Member States to consider presenting women as candidates for the position of Secretary-General.”And it reinforces that member states should “present candidates with proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.”

In January, Guterres, 71, announced his intention to stand for re-election, putting him in the powerful position of being an incumbent. But Latin American and Caribbean region politicos are now conducting informal polls about the woman candidate they might endorse as a bloc in five years. A unanimously backed diplomat would fare much better against the likely rivals from Eastern Europe — the only region with no previous secretaries-general — which could rightly claim 2027 as its turn. Guterres is a former prime minister of Portugal and ran the UN refugee agency for 10 years. Only men — five Western Europeans, two Asians, two Africans and a Latin American — have headed the world body.

“We have had 76 years of male candidates — that is at least 71 years too long,” said Colombe Cahen-Salvador, a co-founder of Forward, a new global initiative promoting a “non-male” secretary-general, first reported by PassBlue. “Gender inequality is one of the biggest plagues of today’s world, and the fact that the leader of the world, who could be considered the UN Secretary-General, has never been a non-male is insane and a disgrace.”

At least three women, from civil society and the UN itself, have publicly declared their candidacies this year: Arora Akanksha, an auditor who has worked at the UN for four years. She has asked for the endorsement of her country, Canada, but that has not emerged. Fátima Nouinou, who is a Turkish citizen, is another applicant, as is Emma Reilly, an Irish-British citizen who calls herself a “protest candidate” and is a UN human-rights law expert working in Geneva.

“In Latin America in general, there is more interest and, I think, it is because of the [principle of] regional rotation,” Andrea Venzon, the other founder of Forward, said about possible women candidates. When it comes to possible successors to Guterres this year, he added, “the Latin American region seems more friendly to the idea.”

So, who are the potential candidates being mentioned in the informal polls in the Latin American-Caribbean political system?

Michelle Bachelet, 69, was the first woman president of Chile, from 2006 to 2010 and from 2014 to 2018, after serving as a health minister and a defense minister — the first Latin American woman to serve in the latter post. In 2011, she was appointed as the first executive director of UN Women, an agency created to promote women’s and girls’ rights globally. She has been the UN high commissioner for human rights, based in Geneva, since September 2018.

Bachelet, who is also a physician, lived in exile for a long period with her mother, Ángela Jeria Gómez, after they were tortured in 1975 in a detention center in Santiago; two years earlier, Bachelet’s father, Alberto Arturo Miguel Bachelet, a Chilean brigadier general, was imprisoned by the Augusto Pinochet regime and tortured daily, dying of a heart attack in prison in 1974.

As the UN’s top human-rights official, Bachelet has been critical of Israeli policies and actions, which led to a confrontation with the Trump administration. She has censured the Chinese government’s mass-scale abuses in Xinjiang Province as well as the mass killings in Tigray, Ethiopia. Her criticisms have been considered mild by the global human-rights community when compared with that of her immediate predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan, who did not pursue a second term given the animosity he stirred up, specifically from the United States. Bachelet was also not favored by the Trump administration, but Guterres overrode those objections and chose her for the Geneva post. Bachelet could encounter resistance from China if she decides to run for secretary-general, given her criticism of the Xi Jinping regime on the Uighurs. China and the other permanent members of the UN Security Council — Britain, France, Russia and the US — ultimately decide who gets the UN post.

Alicia Bárcena is a 69-year-old Mexican administrator who, except for an early post at a now-closed ministry of the Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries and director of the National Institute of Fisheries in her country, has had a long career in the UN. She has served for almost 13 years as the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Eclac) after working as under secretary-general for management and as chef de cabinet to Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Mexican media widely speculated in 2018 that Bárcena was a possible candidate of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to represent Mexico at the UN, after he mentioned her as his choice. Some media suggested, however, that the post seemed beneath her accomplishments. In a 2018 interview, she said that she “would be very honored to collaborate” with the incoming López Obrador administration. It is not clear what happened afterward.

If the comments of José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch’s head of the Americas, are any indication, Bárcena may face questioning from the US if she decides to run for UN chief. Vivanco, who typically takes a pro-US stance, has criticized Bárcena for expressing that Fidel Castro “showed that another way was possible” and that there was no humanitarian crisis in Venezuela in 2016.

María Fernanda Espinosa is a 56-year-old Ecuadorian poet, academic and diplomat who was the UN General Assembly president in its 73rd session, from 2018 to 2019, the fourth woman to hold that annual role. She is remembered at the UN headquarters for banning single-use plastic products there. She served in her home country as minister of foreign affairs twice as well as minister of defense and minister of natural and cultural heritage under the left-leaning presidency of Rafael Correa and, briefly, under his successor, Lenín Moreno. She headed the permanent mission of Ecuador at the UN, both in New York City and in Geneva.

In 2019, she was nominated as a candidate for secretary-general of the Organization of American States by Antigua and Barbuda and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. She could have been the first woman leader of the 71-year-old organization, but the incumbent, Luis Almagro, from Uruguay, won.

On her website, Espinosa embraces global topics. “What the G-20 Should Do Now” was one op-ed, about the global financial challenges posed by the pandemic. Recently, she published an essay in Project Syndicate titled “Build Back Equal,” about gender equality in the post-pandemic world.

Christiana Figueres, a 64-year-old Costa Rican diplomat, ran against Guterres in the 2016 race. She was one of seven women candidates among 13 contenders, but she dropped out after the fourth round of straw-polling in the Security Council. She competed in the race while heading the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which played a major role in the negotiations for the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Figueres headed the Renewable Energy in the Americas and the Center for Sustainable Development in the Americas in 1994 and 1995 and then represented Costa Rica at the UN Framewok Convention on Climate Change until 2010. She has since served on the advisory boards of several corporations, including the Italian Eni oil company.

She is the co-author, with a former UNFCC adviser, Tom Rivett-Carnac, of the book “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis.” They also founded the Global Optimism group, which is focused on climate change.

María Emma Mejía is a 67-year-old politician, diplomat and journalist who served as the ambassador of Colombia to the UN from 2014 to 2018. Previously, she was the secretary-general of the Union of South American Nations, as well as her country’s minister of foreign affairs, minister of education and ambassador to Spain. She was an adviser to Colombian President César Gaviria and chief executive of the Barefoot Foundation, created by the singer Shakira.

During her UN tenure, Mejía founded the Group of Friends in Favor of a Woman Candidate for Secretary-General in 2016. After Guterres’s election, the initiative became the Group of Friends for Gender Parity, supported by 149 member states in 2019.

In Colombia, Mejía has returned to journalism. She conducts a weekly TV show, “A Fondo con María Emma” (translated, “In-Depth With María Emma”), in which she primarily addresses local or regional topics. In the last two months, she has dedicated a single show to an international issue: the Myanmar military coup.

Silvia Rucks turns 56 this year. Working most of her adult life for the UN — 36 years — she is considered a consummate UN insider. A computer-systems engineer, Rucks joined the UN with a three-month contract to install the first computers in the Development Program office in Guatemala in 1985. After working for the organization in Colombia, Nicaragua and as acting representative of the Development Program in Mexico, she has been the UN resident coordinator in Chile since Jan 1, 2019, and is rumored to be taking that role in Brazil soon.

She led the negotiations with the Chilean administration of President Sebastián Piñera to sign a Cooperation Framework for Sustainable Development from 2019 to 2022 — the first such agreement toward the 2030 development goals. Conservative commentators in Chile framed the agreement as UN intervention.

But Rucks said in an interview, “We are using Chile a little bit as a pilot to experiment with this methodology.” The framework, she noted, was already generating interest from countries around the world.

Maurizio Guerrero was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations for 10 years of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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