Is it time for a woman at the helm of the United Nations?

Backers say it's about fairness to the women who make up more than half the world's population and about opening up a system that too often operates like a good ol' boys club.

Howard LaFranchi
Portraits of the men who have served as the United Nations secretary-general, including Ban Ki-moon, hang in the visitors' lobby of the UN headquarters in New York. Some people are pushing for the next secretary-general to be a woman.

In the expansive visitors’ lobby of the United Nations headquarters, a blue wall is dominated by portraits of the eight men who have served as the world body’s secretary-general, including the current chief, Ban Ki-moon.

Now several groups of diplomats, former UN officials, and friends of the institution are vigorously pushing to see that the ninth portrait on the wall is of a woman.

On the surface, the campaign to have a woman serve as the UN’s next secretary-general is as simple as it sounds: Backers say that after seven decades, it’s high time to give a woman a shot at running the global show.

But on a deeper level, the movement is about much more. It’s about fairness to the women who make up more than half the world’s population, advocates say. It’s about democratizing a world body that works in a top-down fashion, and it’s about opening up a system that too often – especially when it comes to picking a secretary-general – operates like a good ol’ boys club.

In other words, the effort to have a woman serve atop the UN is really about promoting and advancing the values and principles the institution purports to represent.

“Of course gender equity and recognition of the place of women in global affairs is a big part of this, but even more than that, I’d say this campaign comes out of a desire to see more transparency, openness, and inclusiveness” in the workings of the UN, says María Emma Mejía, Colombia’s ambassador to the UN and a founding force behind the “woman for secretary-general” movement.

She notes that a campaign she and a few colleagues started in the spring now has the support of 50 countries. “The idea is to take a very visible issue with increasing appeal and at the same time move forward on the revitalization and transformation” of the UN, she adds.

The transformation that the group seeks starts with the glaringly undemocratic and opaque process for selecting – don’t call it an election, critics of the current system say – the secretary-general.

A 1946 UN resolution calls for “a man of eminence and high attainment” to serve as the institution’s leader, and the UN charter stipulates that the Security Council shall nominate a candidate and the General Assembly shall vote on the Council’s nomination.

In reality what occurs is a closed-door horse-trading negotiation at which the five permanent members of the Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain – haggle and bargain over male candidates. Tradition has it that the secretary-general position should rotate among regional groups of countries. Mr. Ban is from South Korea, of the Asian group, and his predecessor, Kofi Annan, was from the African group.

In the 70 years of the UN’s existence, no woman has been seriously considered for the top job – although three women were briefly mentioned early on as potential candidates as the post was coming open in 1953, 1991, and 2006.

With Ban’s term due to wrap up at the end of next year, proponents of a woman secretary-general say they sense a shift in their favor.

Advocates are adamant that their idea is not about selecting a woman at all costs, but rather opening up the selection process to fairly considering the many well-qualified women who they say fit the eminent-and-accomplished qualifications for the job.

“This is not about lowering the bar, it’s just widening the circle,” says Gillian Sorensen, a former assistant to Mr. Annan who is now a senior adviser with the UN Foundation and a member of the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General.

Indeed Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of State and US ambassador to the UN, emphasizes in lending her support to the campaign that in her view, a woman will have to be “more qualified” because she would inevitably come under tougher scrutiny than a male candidate.

The Woman Secretary-General group, as the campaign is commonly known, maintains a list of what it says are qualified women candidates – a list nearing 40 names that includes serving and former foreign ministers, high-level UN directors, and other high-ranking officials.

“We’re not promoting any one candidate. The point of the list is to be a resource as the process [to choose Ban’s successor] proceeds and to drive home the point that in fact there are lots of women qualified for this job,” says Jean Krasno, a Yale professor and UN expert who chairs the Woman Secretary-General group. “We want to have a response ready when we hear the same excuse that there just aren’t qualified women candidates to consider.”

The list, which is accessible on the group’s website, includes Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand; the president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet; and Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund. Also listed are UNESCO chief Irina Bokova and European Union commissioner Kristalina Ivanova Georgieva – both from the Eastern European group that, under the tradition of regional rotation, would be tapped next for a secretary-general.

Proponents of a woman secretary-general say their goal of implementing a more open and democratic selection process would mean getting proceedings going early next year, if Ban’s replacement is to be arrived at sometime around the General Assembly opening session in September. The proceedings would include hearings and possibly interviews with potential candidates.

That would differ sharply from the usual succession of closed Security Council sessions in the late summer and fall aimed at settling on the one (male) name to present to the General Assembly.

Advocates like Colombian Ambassador Mejía say they are confident that the pressure of at least 50 countries will lead to a more open process this time around.

Less certain is the prospect that a more transparent process will lead to a woman succeeding Ban.

Even some prominent women’s rights supporters caution that the most important thing for the world’s women is to have a strong advocate at the helm of the global institution – not so much the symbolic win of a woman secretary-general.

They also point out that countries with female leaders have not necessarily witnessed a sudden focus on issues of importance to women.

But backers of a woman at the UN’s helm say it just may be that the world today needs the feminine qualities that a woman could bring to the post.

“We’re in an era of conflicts of various types, and not only have those conflicts had a disproportionate impact on women and their families, but they have required women to be creative in dealing with those conflicts and difficulties,” says Mejía. “It’s that kind of creativity that we need leading the world to tackle this challenging moment.”

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