The small Baltic country of Estonia is ready to boost the prospects of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres winning a second term as the country holds its last Security Council presidency in June during its current elected term.
“It will be very nice for us to do it,” Sven Jurgenson, Estonia’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue, adding, “and for me personally because during the last elections five years ago, Estonia together with Costa Rica had a lead in the ACT [Accountability, Coherence and Transparency] group on the selection process of secretary-general.” In 2016, Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal and head of the UN refugee agency for 10 years, was elected as the UN’s top leader for the 2017-2021 term.
Jurgenson added that “it would be rewarding to me also to see that the next selection will also happen during my watch, when I’m in the Council.”
As part of the overall process, the Council must recommend a candidate to the UN General Assembly for a vote. Guterres, the only officially recognized candidate, is likely to be re-elected, and Estonia wants to make sure the 193-member Assembly carries out the vote this summer. [Update, June 4: The Council is slated to announce its recommendation on June 8.]
In early May, after what many countries called a successful public dialogue with UN member states and a few members of civil society in a discussion hosted by the General Assembly president, Guterres’s second term became a fait accompli, to the great disappointment of numerous self-declared candidates who were hoping to be taken seriously and push the process to be even more transparent than it was in 2016, when a bold new experiment occurred.
None of the candidates, however, had a national endorsement, which translated into their not being acknowledged officially by the respective presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council. A handful of the candidates are still campaigning through informal means, and last week, a new person threw his hat in the ring, Patrick U. Petit, a 52-year-old German-French mediator, who also has no national backing.
Nevertheless, Jurgenson of Estonia thinks the selection process has been transparent: “I don’t think that we are moving back,” he said. “I think the process, if you look at what happened this year, actually, it was exactly the same process that happened last [time]. But it was just with one candidate.”
Natalie Samarasinghe, chief executive of UNA-UK and a co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion nongovernmental network that originated in 2015 to advocate for more transparency and inclusiveness in the UN secretary-general selection process, thinks that civil society groups could have been more involved in the procedure this year. She said in an email that “there are qualified candidates out there who come from civil society, who are female, who are young.”
“The process hasn’t exactly had us reaching for the popcorn,” she added. “Clearly, an incumbent changes the dynamic, especially one who’s had to deal with everything from COVID-19 to Number 45 [President Trump]. Those with a good chance of succeeding Guterres are sitting this one out.” That means another five years before another secretary-general will be chosen after Guterres’s second term ends on Dec. 31, 2026.
Other than leading the Council to formally recommend Guterres’s nomination in June, Estonia will push its focus on cybersecurity further this month. During its last rotating presidency, in May 2020, Estonia organized an Arria-formula meeting on the topic, a flexible format that is not an official Security Council discussion. This time around, Estonia is organizing a high-level debate on cybersecurity on June 29 — making it an official topic of discussion in the UN body.
Last year, some members expressed concerns over whether the topic belonged in the Council. This year, Estonia has not encountered pushback about it.
“I would not say that we met resistance; we met questions,” Jurgenson said. “There were some member states who had some questions. But at no point did we feel any animosity or anybody really being against it.”
Also on Estonia’s agenda: Afghanistan as well as children in armed conflict, on June 22 and 28, respectively. Estonia, along with Norway, is a penholder on Afghanistan and is hoping to revive discussion around the complexity there as the United States plans to withdraw most of its troops soon. Estonia will also hold the recurrent meeting on the relationship between the UN and the European Union on June 10. (The Council’s full program of work.)
Estonia is currently the only country in the world to have both a woman head of state and a woman head of government, with the appointment of Prime Minister Kaja Kallas in January and the president being Kersti Kaljulaid. Some countries that are still in the Commonwealth of Nations have Queen Elizabeth II as the symbolic head of the political association. In Denmark, Queen Margrethe II is the head of government, a largely ceremonial role, and the current prime minister is Mette Frederiksen.
Estonia currently has the most gender-balanced cabinet in its history, with 7 out of 15 ministers women, many of them leading high-profile portfolios such as justice and finance. Eva-Maria Liimets has been responsible for Estonia’s foreign relations since January as well. PassBlue interviewed Liimets by Zoom about gender equality in Estonia and the country’s final year in the Security Council as an elected member, for our latest podcast episode. Ambassador Jurgenson is also featured in the episode, which is produced by Stéphanie Fillion and Kacie Candela, with research by Ivana Ramirez. (Excerpts are also below.)
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they assume the Council presidency. UN-Scripted episodes can be downloaded on SoundCloud or Patreon. To read more about Jurgenson and Estonia’s first Council presidency, in May 2020, go here.
Estonia’s Foreign Minister: Eva-Maria Liimets, 46
Foreign minister since: 2021
Languages: Estonian, English, German, Italian, Russian
Her story, briefly: Eva-Maria Liimets was born in Tallinn, the capital. She was still a student when Estonia became independent from the Soviet Union, so she told PassBlue that her education helped her climb the ladder throughout her career “because I was among the first students in Estonia who has so-called Western education,” she said, adding: “We already understood that men and women are equal. I think that it helped me to grow without having to structure types that men or women are not exactly equal in building up their careers.”
Liimets has been working in Estonia’s foreign ministry for more than two decades and has been posted in Rome, Washington D.C., New York City and Prague. When she was in New York City, the UN wasn’t part of her portfolio, but she got to work closely with the organization when she was director of the Office of International Organizations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 2009 to 2014, in Estonia.
One of her proudest career moments came in the tech world, when she was a counselor for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in 2013, and was responsible for arranging a meeting on Internet connectivity with African and other countries — one of many conferences in 2014 focusing on Internet freedom. She said that at the conference, “we had a coalition of Internet freedom countries coming to Tallinn and they agreed on Tallinn conclusions, which each objective was to underline that we shall have the same freedoms offline as we could have online. I think that it was a very important conference because these principles found a lot of use also later in, in different areas, forming the international law.”
Liimets is divorced and the mother of one child.
She talked to PassBlue on May 21. Her remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
When you became foreign minister in January 2021, did you change Estonia’s approach as an elected member in the Security Council? I came into power when we had another 11 months to go in the Council, and now we are on the eve of Estonia’s second presidency. Our approach, or why we decided to apply for the nonpermanent membership, has been the same for a long time. So I didn’t change any of the priorities, which were formalized by the previous government. I very much believe that the United Nations Security Council is the center of global diplomacy, and for Estonia, membership means, above all, the responsibility to contribute to the international crisis management, to create peace in societies and contribute to conflict management. There are a lot of challenges that we face in the global area; so when we talk about how international law is upheld, also, how international agreements are respected. So there are challenges in which we think that Estonia is a responsible global partner who could contribute to resolving these disputes and discussions.
How do you think Estonia has fared in its year and a half in the Council? Can you name Estonia’s successes so far? I think for Estonia, of course, regional security is of [utmost] importance, and we have some areas that are very important for our regional security, also for the Security Council. We have had a few open debates in [Arria-formula] format in this regard. For example, recently, we had an open debate on the occupation of Crimea, an occupied area of Ukraine. Another topic, which was very popular among other UN member states, was our open debate on media freedom in Belarus. So we have brought this kind of regional topic to the Security Council and given an opportunity for people of these countries to come to the Council and share their concerns on security or human rights [back home].
You mentioned Estonia’s meetings organized on Crimea and Belarus. These must not have pleased the Russians, who are permanent members of the Council. Historically, Estonia and Russia have a very complicated relationship. How has your term on the Council and organizing these meetings affected your relationship with Russia? Yes, we are together with the Russian Federation at the United Nations Security Council and, of course, they are permanent members and we are just members for two years. Estonia is a neighboring country [of Russia]; therefore, we are interested in good and constructive relations because these . . . would be in our best interest. We should discuss different topics even if we disagree [on] some of the topics.
However, we are most concerned about [the] current situation of human rights in Russia and [Russia’s] aggressive behavior towards its neighbors, as we have seen in Ukraine and Georgia, where parts of the territories have been occupied. Estonia considers international law crucial, and we are following very closely how it is upheld. Therefore, we also disagree with the Russian Federation on these areas related to the topics I just mentioned. And these different views or disagreements we also see at Security Council debates. From our perspective, the parties must come together and find the way forward peacefully. So this is the goal we work on bilaterally but also in the international organizations.
Head of State: President Kersti Kaljulaid
Foreign Affairs Minister: Eva-Maria Liimets
Type of Government: Parliamentary republic
Year Estonia Joined the UN: 1991
Years in the Security Council: 2020-2021
Population: 1.3 million
Memberships in Regional Groups: European Union, NATO, Baltic Euroregional Network (BEN), Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
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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.