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Which Woman Should Be the Next UN Secretary-General? Our Survey Results

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From Left: Michelle Bachelet, Mia Mottley and María Fernanda Espinosa
The top three winners of PassBlue’s informal survey on which woman should lead the UN next, in order, from left, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile; Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbardos; and María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, an ex-president of the UN General Assembly. PHOTO MONTAGE BY JOHN PENNEY

Michelle Bachelet, a two-time president of Chile and ex-UN high commissioner for human rights, is the winner of our informal survey on which woman should be the next United Nations secretary-general, starting in the five-year term on Jan. 1, 2027. Following Bachelet is Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados.

Third place was snagged by María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, a former president of the UN General Assembly and an ex-foreign minister of Ecuador. Amina Mohammed, UN deputy secretary-general and a onetime environment minister for Nigeria, came in fourth.

“I feel very honored for the support received, and I think it is essential that women be present in all decision-making spaces,” Bachelet said in an email to PassBlue sent by the Chilean mission to the UN. “I have no doubt there are a lot of outstanding women with capabilities. A challenge of this nature requires a lot of reflection.”

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The survey included space for write-in candidates, and Jacinda Ardern, a 43-year-old former prime minister of New Zealand, came in first, garnering 1.2 percent of the overall vote. In second place as a write-in candidate was Dunja Mijatovic, a 59-year-old human rights expert from Bosnia-Herzegovina, drawing 0.6 percent of overall votes.

The UN has never been led by a woman, and numerous civil society campaigns are gearing up to promote the end of this decades-long gender imbalance for the next secretary-general term to succeed António Guterres of Portugal. The 1 for 8 Billion advocacy project by UNA-UK is underway, and the Global Women Leaders Voices nonprofit group promoting gender equality in multilateral organizations, said it was planning to advocate for a woman secretary-general beginning this year.

“After nearly 80 years, the male monopoly of the UN’s highest office must end,” Marissa Conway, chief executive of UNA-UK, wrote in an email to PassBlue. “It’s time for member states to walk the gender equality talk and appoint a woman Secretary-General. States must take this opportunity to help restore faith in the UN and demonstrate that diverse and inclusive leadership is vital to achieving a more equal, sustainable, and peaceful world.”

Colombe Cahen-Salvador, a 30-year-old lawyer and a founder of a democracy advocacy group, Atlas Movement, declared her candidacy on March 31. She is not endorsed by her country, France, which may not be an official prerequisite for a candidate but certainly an important booster.

The Atlas website declared: “We are facing global survival threats: climate change, wars, artificial intelligence, poverty, dictatorships, and pandemics. We must unite to fight them: that’s why we are running for elections worldwide, from local councils to the United Nations, on the same political vision.”

PassBlue’s survey listed 12 candidates, mostly from the Latin America/Caribbean region, given that it is contending that it should have the next turn to lead the UN. The list also included candidates from Eastern Europe (an area that has never had a secretary-general), Africa and Asia. The names in the list rotated automatically to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

They were culled through conversations held in the last few months with a range of diplomats, UN personnel and civil society groups as well as researching digital news and other resources to glean who should be listed. None of the candidates approached PassBlue to be included in the survey.

The space provided for survey-takers to write in potential names inspired dozens of possibilities. Besides Ardern and Mijatovic, they included Natalia Kanem of Panama, Sigrid Kaag of the Netherlands, Catherine Pollard of Guyana, Helen Clark of New Zealand, Angela Merkel of Germany and Hillary Clinton of the United States.

The survey ran from March 24 to March 31 and was sent by email to PassBlue subscribers worldwide and posted repeatedly on our social media accounts. The survey was finished by 2,220 respondents, and PassBlue’s managing editor, John Penney, tallied the results.

Although Bachelet of Chile won the No. 1 spot, garnering 23.9 percent of the votes, Mottley’s percentage was 19.8 percent. Fernanda Espinosa clinched 11.8 percent and Mohammed, 8.3 percent. The order of placement of the other women in the list of 12 is as follows, starting with fifth place: Alicia Bárcena of Mexico, Rebeca Grynspan of Costa Rica, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, María Angela Holguín of Colombia, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Retno Marsudi of Indonesia, Carolyn Rodrigues-Birkett of Guyana and Tanja Fajon of Slovenia.

Bachelet, 72, was president of Chile from 2014-2018 and 2006-2010. She is also a former executive director of UN Women. The Chilean mission to the UN said Bachelet is scheduled to participate in the UN Youth Forum, April 16-18, in New York City.

Mottley’s name has been bandied about as a potential candidate in the last several years, as her focus on reforming international financial institutions coupled climate activism has been encapsulated in her 2022 Bridgetown Initiative, drawing global attention. Mottley, 58, a lawyer, has been prime minister of the Caribbean nation since 2018 and is the first woman to hold this job. She is not above quoting from, say, Bob Marley and the Wailers. Kereeta Whyte, Barbados’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, declined to offer a comment from Mottley for this article.

Fernanda Espinosa, 59, was president of the General Assembly’s 73d session, in 2018-2019, the fourth woman to hold the post in the history of the UN. She has been Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs twice as well as the minister of defense and the coordinating minister of natural and cultural heritage. In 2008, she was the first woman to become the permanent representative of Ecuador to the UN in New York City. She is the executive director of Global Women Leaders Voices.

Besides being deputy secretary-general of the UN, Mohammed, 62, is chair of the UN Sustainable Development Group, overseeing the implementation of the 17 sustainable development goals. Before her environment ministry post in Nigeria, she joined the UN in 2012 as special adviser to Ban Ki-moon when he was secretary-general.

Ardern is a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. She was New Zealand’s prime minister from 2017 to 2023, becoming the world’s youngest head of government at age 37. She describes herself as a social democrat and a progressive. She made news at the UN in 2018 when she brought her infant daughter, Neve, to the annual General Assembly opening debate.

Mijatovic was most recently the human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, serving from April 2018 to March 2024, focusing on, among other issues, freedom of expression, safety of journalists, protection of human rights defenders, the rights of migrants and refugees and combating discrimination and hate speech. Previously, she was the Organization for Security and Cooperation’s representative on freedom of the media, from 2010 to 2017.


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

Dulcie Leimbach

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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Which Woman Should Be the Next UN Secretary-General? Our Survey Results
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Cristina
Cristina
1 month ago

Although all of these women have their merit, why aren’t we looking to women outside the System? Or perhaps even within the System, but whose track record will give Reform a much needed boost. I’m sorry but some of the candidates on this list must be examined more closely before they pass muster. Is there an independent body/committee to ensure the process is fair?

Adrian T
Adrian T
1 month ago
Reply to  Cristina

The only woman that I would consider independent from this list is Dunya Mijatovic.I met her several times, she is impressive individual but I also heard that she is brave and has very high respect among civil society and governments circles. I see her as a candidate to be seriously considered.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago

Thanks Dulcie for this great summary of the outcome of this informal but important survey on a matter which will determine the future of our world. From my perspective the United Nations need very serious reforms to remake its relevant for its objectives and purpose of a just, peaceful, democratic and equal world. To achieve this, the new UN Secretary General should be a woman, a UN outsider and a strong reformer with clear political decision-making credentials and demonstrated abilities to lead, fight and win at local and global levels on important issues being addressed by the SDGs and beyond. To be just, inclusive, equitable, equal, and to prevent marginalisation, and considering global issues facing the world, the new UN Secretary General should be a woman from the Caribbean because the post should not be a monopoly for other regions of the world and as we all agree the post should no longer be a monopoly for men who have been running the UN since it was established after World War II.

Sabrina
Sabrina
2 months ago

Many ladies mentioned are already belonging to old UN set up and having a woman from this elite group would not make a difference at all. At the Summit in September, the UN should start seriously talking about future SG and the process.My personal favourite candidates would be Sigrid Kaag and Dunja Mijatovic If we want to see a real change and bring courage, credibility and clear view towards future we need to see, not compromised, courageous women competing.

Priyanthi Fernando
Priyanthi Fernando
2 months ago

Why is Michele Bachelet’s role as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights not mentioned? Surely that is an important position….

Yctan
Yctan
2 months ago

How about KRISTALINA GEORGIEVA who is the current DG of IMF?

Rodolfo Jose Losada-Chaveli
Rodolfo Jose Losada-Chaveli
1 month ago
Reply to  Yctan

It has to go to the Americas.

Serafin
Serafin
2 months ago

It is evident that there is a strong push for a woman Secretary-General within the United Nations. It is just & long overdue, but more importantly, it should be emphasized that there is a crucial need for a candidate who embodies independence, integrity, credibility, and fearlessness in addressing global issues. The call should be for a person who is not only a diplomat or a politician but also a vocal advocate for positive change and justice. This would reflect the growing demand for fresh perspectives and decisive action in global governance and would foster trust and inspire confidence among the global populace that the UN desperately need.
Highlighting the significance of this moment in history, where the appointment of a woman as Secretary-General has the potential to mark a transformative shift within the UN, underscores the need for a person who can effectively engage with both traditional diplomatic circles and the broader global community, particularly young people. Ultimately, selecting a woman SecGen with a strong commitment to truth, a clear vision for a better world, and a track record of speaking truth to power will not only be historic but also transformative for the UN and its ability to address the complex challenges facing the world today. With this in mind, the UN would make a profound statement about its dedication to progress and inclusivity.
This is important initiative by the PassBlue, please continue, interview these ladies, work on building interest by the international media. The pressure should not stop.

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Víctor Vera
Víctor Vera
3 months ago

Bachelet has what it takes to play a good role: great humanity, political preparation and uncompromising democracy.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago
Reply to  Víctor Vera

An insider like Michelle, Amina or Mirian will not be well placed to bring about the real changes needed for a new UN and a democratic United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Mia is the most appropriate high level leader and decision maker who can make the necessary changes for a better UN and a juste and equitable world!

Mirian Masaquiza
Mirian Masaquiza
3 months ago

Maria Fernanda Espinosa has the experience in different fronts not only as a UN high level official but also as an government official in high ranks as well as an advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples and nature.

Naeemah Hazelle
Naeemah Hazelle
3 months ago

It should be PM Mottley. Point blank, Period.

hadia
hadia
3 months ago

Amina Mohammad, her experience, and reading through this article, the rare one representing South.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago
Reply to  hadia

Amina Mohamed I know is an insider and who I have worked with in Nigeria when she was Minister of Environment and an insider is not well placed to undertake the real changes needed at the UN. Also Africa has had Boutros Boutros Ghaly from Egypte and Kofi Annan from Ghana as UN Secretary Generals.

Ariella
Ariella
3 months ago

PM Mia Amor Mottley is the last person the UN would want to consider as Secretary General. Ask the people of Barbados about her not some non descript polls.

SABITI Jeanne Zamuda
SABITI Jeanne Zamuda
3 months ago

Personnellement, je pense que les résultats de ce sondage reflètent la réalité du moment sur l’échequier des femmes leaders en ce qui concerne le poste de SG de l’UN.Les expériences de chacune de ces 3Grandes Dames devraient être complémentaires. C’est qui signifie qu’à la fin de ligne, elles devraient travailler en synergie pour servir le monde via UN.

PassBlue
Admin
PassBlue
3 months ago

[In English]:Personally, I think that the results of this survey reflect the current reality on the chessboard of women leaders with regard to the position of SG of the UN. The experiences of each of these 3 Great Ladies should be complementary. This means that at the end of the line, they should work in synergy to serve the world through ONE.

Stan Smith
Stan Smith
3 months ago
Reply to  PassBlue

Does it? Probably the most capable Caribbean-origin women leaders of one of the World’s important Groupings, namely The Commonwealth, has been left out.
Patricia Scotland, Secretary General of The Commonwealth, surely must count for something?

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
3 months ago

Thank you very much Dulcie for putting this very important article together and looking at the results. I would think that Prime Minister Motley is the best possible candidate for this very important post because of her strong and skillful leadership she could bring at the front burner the issues on climate change as she is living it on daily basis on her native Barbados, also bring about the necessary transformation the UN needs and build new relationships between the North and the Global South based on equality, justice, equity and mutual respect based on solidarity. Let us remember that Latin America has had its UNSG (Javier de Cuellar), Africa as well (Boutros Boutros Ghaly and Kofi Anan) Europe and Asia/Pacific the same, indeed this it the time for the Caribbean to steer this world body for the benefit of all and Honorable Mia Motley the very successful leader of Barbados is able to do so.

John Matter
John Matter
3 months ago

Before proposing or commenting on candidates or potential candidates, you should know how to write their names, present and previous. It only takes a short google search. Moreover, the “Caribbean” is not a regional group and it stands with Latin America and the Caribbean for a reason. Bachelet and Barcena are better, more outstanding candidates with actual UN experience.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago
Reply to  John Matter

The terminology Latin America and the Caribbean is very raciste, diminishing the Caribbean people! The Caribbean where I have worked from 1990-2005 for the United Nations is a regional entity and a group in the UN and the OAS. A this point in time, we do not need a UN insider if we have to bring about changes needed for a better UN especially a juste and equitable UN Security Council. Therefore, we need Prime Minister Motley of Barbados. Also Latin America has had Javier de Cuellar as UN Secretary General as well as other regions of the world!

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