– When the only female candidate failed in her attempt to become UN Secretary-General back in late 2006, an Asian diplomat weighed in with an upgraded Biblical quote: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”, he said, “than for a woman to become the Secretary-General of the United Nations.”
But as an unrelated New Yorker cartoon jokingly pronounced: “We (may still) need either bigger needles or smaller camels.”
That female candidate, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, never made it to the 38th floor of the UN Secretariat, the office of the UN chief.
The other six candidates in that race were all men: UN Under-Secretary-General Shashi Tharoor of India; former Foreign Minister Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan; Jordanian Ambassador Prince Zeid Raad al-Hussein; Thai Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai; and UN Under-Secretary-General Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka.
The sixth male candidate, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon, was eventually elected Secretary-General (SG), and took office in January 2007.
For most of the 70 years of its existence, the UN has remained mostly male dominated as part of an embedded political culture.
But that environment appears to change – although appearances are known to be deceptive, and politically so, in the world body.
However, if the current campaign for a woman Secretary-General picks up steam, there is still a chance the UN will get its historic first later this year—in a world where nearly half of the 7 billion people are women.
For the first time in the history of the UN, the President of the 193-member General Assembly (GA) Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark says he is committed to an “open and transparent process” for the selection and appointment of the next Secretary-General.
All member States have been invited to present candidates to the President of the General Assembly, as well as to the President of the Security Council. As of last week, there were seven officially declared candidates, four men and three women.
The list includes: Dr. Srgjan Kerim of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia; Ms Vesna Pusić of the Republic of Croatia; Dr. Igor Lukšić of Montenegro; Dr. Danilo Türk of Slovenia; Ms. Irina Bokova of Bulgaria; Ms. Natalia Gherman of Republic of Moldova and Antonio Guterres of Portugal.
Jessica Neuwirth, one of the founders and Honorary President of Equality Now, told lPS: “I think the time for a woman SG has finally come – SG Ban ki-moon has said he would like for a woman to succeed him, there are member states formally endorsing the idea that it is time for a woman SG, and while there have always been qualified women for the post, there are now a number of these women who are actually campaigning for it”.
“As for the regional rotation, I think more than any region’s turn, it is women’s turn to be represented and so there could and should be some flexibility to be sure that a woman can be chosen for the post,” said Neuwirth who is the founder/director of Donor Direct Action, an offshoot of Equality Now, founded to raise funds for frontline women’s groups.
She pointed out that Equality Now launched its first call for a woman SG soon after the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995 at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women.
She said the Platform for Action called for the development of “mechanisms to nominate women candidates for appointment to senior posts in the United Nations” and set the target of “overall gender equality, particularly at the Professional level and above, by the year 2000.”
“We are still waiting for implementation of this commitment, 16 years after the target date of 2000. Maybe if we start from the top we can actually get there,” she declared.
Charlotte Bunch, Founding Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University, told IPS: “We are closer than ever before to the possibility of a woman being selected as the next SG.”
She said the more transparent process adopted by the GA this year and the growing recognition of the need for diversity in leadership, including gender as well as geography, all bode well for this to happen.
“There are a number of well qualified women from various regions whose names have been either formally nominated and/or publicly discussed, and we hope all will be given serious consideration.”
But it is critically important which woman is chosen, as a poor choice sets women up for failure. “Her gender should be a strong plus, but not her primary qualification,” said Bunch.
Her vision of the future of the United Nations in these troubled times and her ability to communicate and carry that out organizationally as well as her demonstrated commitment to the UN principles – of human rights, peace, development and gender equality – are also crucial, said Bunch who took a leading role in the campaign for the creation of UN Women.
As part of the transparency process, the President of the General Assembly will begin a series of informal dialogues with the candidates April 12 through April 14.
This meeting will provide candidates a platform to present their candidature and an opportunity for the 193 member states to ask questions and grill the candidates. The candidates will be offered a two-hour meeting for individual presentations.
Meanwhile, there is a global campaign by a collective group of NGOs called “1 for 7 Billion” demanding an open election process “which until now has been shrouded in secrecy.”
The group criticizes the “woefully inadequate way in which the Secretary-General has been elected to date by a handful of powerful countries (read: the five permanent members of the Security Council) behind closed doors.”
Last year The Colombian Ambassador Maria Emma Mejia circulated a letter seeking support for a female Secretary-General. Over 44 governments initially signed on to the initiative.
But not the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council – the US, UK, France, China and Russia – who have always had the final say on the selection of the Secretary-General.
Russia has already made a statement that the job should go to the most competent person – irrespective of gender.
But it is rooting for an Eastern European on the basis of geographical rotation because the last eight UN chiefs have come from Western Europe (3), Asia (2), Africa (2) and Latin America (1).
A senior US woman journalist, who was at one-time based at the United Nations, told IPS: “My instinct is that the choice of a woman could be very narrow, since there are no obvious candidates — and I see that the US has been critical lately of the management of UNDP.”
“I don’t think Washington is focused very much on this with the pandemonium going on in the primary races. And the Russian nomination of a woman from Moldova looks more like mischief than anything else.”
Incidentally, she said, German Chancellor Angela Kane would like to be on that list but hasn’t got any backing from Germany.
The current Secretary-General’s all-male predecessors were: Kofi Annan (Ghana), Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar (Peru), Kurt Waldheim (Austria), U.Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) and Trygve Lie (Norway).
**Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the only female candidate failed in her attempt to become UN Secretary-General back in late 2006Credit: NATO photos