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The Next UN Secretary General Will Likely Be A Woman

by Jesse Hirsch

May 24, 2016
Helen Clark of New Zealand (Getty Images)

Shazia Rafi was a founding member of Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary General (WomanSG for short). “When we started last spring, people would always refer to the next Secretary General as a he. At some point that shifted to ‘he or she,’” recalls Rafi, a 25-year veteran of diplomacy and international relations. “Now people are saying ‘she or he.’”

Last week Argentina’s foreign minister Susana Malcorra was nominated to be the next United Nations Secretary General. Her inclusion brings the candidate pool to an evenly gendered split five women and five men. It’s a major sea change in an organization that, in its 70-year history, has not had even one female candidate for its top leadership role.

Dr. Jean Krasno, campaign chair of WomanSG, teaches international relations at Columbia, Yale, and City College of New York. The idea for her group resulted from years of promising her students that they’d see a woman in the UN top slot. Krasno says conditions are favorable in society-at-large for a change like this, but there’s more to it than just shifting attitudes. “Women have now had a few decades to catch up, pursue higher education, attain higher diplomatic positions,” she says. “You used to be able to argue, ‘There simply aren’t any qualified candidates for the [Secretary General] position.’ There’s no way you could say that now.”

Vesna Pusic, former foreign minister of Croatia, was the first woman nominated for the position earlier this year. Then came Natalia Gherman, foreign minister of Moldova. After that was Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, the first female director-general of UNESCO, and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand. These four have already had their nomination hearings in front of the UN General Assembly; Malcorra’s will come in June.

Holding the hearings in front of the full UN body is also a major shift, a response to the will of its membership. “In such a bureaucratic organization, something like this is a revolution!” Krasno excitedly notes. The nomination process has previously been much more opaque and informal, conducted entirely by men behind closed doors. “Women tend to do better in open processes,” says Rafi. “Part of it is that in past, they weren’t in enough leadership roles to be participating in these closed-door decisions. Not anymore.”

After all the hearings are completed, the decision process will revert behind those doors again; the 15-member UN Security Council will deliberate privately. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is the only woman currently on that council. It’s important to note that security council members are seen as proxy representatives for the heads of their respective nations. Perhaps as a sign of how much progress can still be made, all 15 of those countries are led by men. “Where’s Angela Merkel?!” jokes Krasno.

Whoever the council selects needs the approval of all its five veto-holding permanent members, the U.S., China, Britain, Russia and France. Then it gets bounced back to the General Assembly, who maintain the right to veto the decision. Krasno and Rafi are both hopeful that this step will be quite telling. “The security council has to listen to the General Assembly,” says Krasno, “and the assembly is quite invigorated by the idea of change right now. It is so exciting!”

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The Next UN Secretary General Will Likely Be A Woman