UNITED NATIONS (IPS) – The United Nations has been one of the most vociferous advocates of gender empowerment and a persistent critic of gender discrimination worldwide. But still, it has continued to fall far short of its own lofty ideals. The UN has never had a female secretary-general (SG) in its 75-year history while only [...]

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First female UN Chief: Still a political fantasy?


Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says he is “available” for a second five-year term as UN chief. Pic courtesy the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) – The United Nations has been one of the most vociferous advocates of gender empowerment and a persistent critic of gender discrimination worldwide.

But still, it has continued to fall far short of its own lofty ideals.

The UN has never had a female secretary-general (SG) in its 75-year history while only four women have been elected — amid 71 men — as Presidents of the General Assembly, the organisation’s highest policy making body.

On January 11, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, a former Prime Minister of Portugal, announced he will be “available” for a second term — perhaps upending the longstanding campaign for a female UN chief.

But that final decision, however, will depend not only on the 193 member states, but also, most importantly, on the UN Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members who will have the last word on who should, or who shouldn’t, be the next secretary-general, come January 2022.

Historically, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt (1992-1996) was denied a second term by a single veto by the US even though he garnered the votes of the remaining 14 members of the Security Council.

In 1981, Kurt Waldheim of Austria was denied an unprecedented third term when he was vetoed 16 times, apparently by China, paving the way for the election of Javier Perez de Cuellar of Peru as Secretary-General. (1982-1991).

Guterres has taken a key role in enhancing gender empowerment in the UN system with scores of women appointed to high-ranking positions.

He told delegates last year: “We achieved gender parity – 90 women and 90 men – in the ranks of our full-time senior leadership, two years ahead of the target that I set at the start of my tenure, and we have a roadmap for parity at all levels in the coming years”.

The cynics, however, argue the unusually high gender representation may also be a subtle attempt — or a hidden agenda — to stall any campaign for a female Secretary-General since he has an outstanding track record in the field.

Purnima Mane, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) told IPS the call for a woman SG at the UN had been made repeatedly but in the 75-year history of the UN, this call had not met with success.

In the 1975 International Women’s Year, there were special efforts made by feminist groups to get women to be nominated for this position.

Since then, she pointed out, the call has only grown, with multiple groups, including groups of Member States, banding together to advocate for a woman to lead the prestigious organization.

At the end of his tenure, former Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon of South Korea was quoted as saying it was “high time” for a woman leader of the UN.

But it was only in 2016, for the first time, there seemed to be some signs of change on the horizon. At one stage, 50% of the proposed candidates were women, Mane noted.

However, member states eventually endorsed Mr. Guterres unanimously, said Mane, a former President and Chief Executive Officer of Pathfinder International, a global leader in sexual and reproductive health.

Prisca Chaoui, Executive Secretary of the 3,500-strong Staff Coordinating Council of the UN Office in Geneva (UNOG), told IPS that in the past, despite the existence of competent women in the UN, it has largely been the reality that when women do achieve career progression, it tends to be mostly women belonging to certain geographical groups or regions.

“There are concerns that implementation of the UN’s Gender Parity Strategy may follow a similar pattern. It is crucial that this important initiative ensures a diverse gender parity that includes women from the global South, women of colour, and women from developing and underrepresented countries,” she noted.

Outlining some of the steps he plans to take in the future, Guterres said last year: “I have reminded the entire senior leadership team about the special measures we have in place to advance parity throughout the system”.

If a male candidate is hired in an office or department that has not yet achieved gender parity, and where an equally competent female candidate had been identified, an explanation must be sent to my office detailing the reasoning for the decision prior to final selection being made, he declared.

Antonia Kirkland, Global Lead on Legal Equality & Access to Justice at Equality Now, told IPS since the United Nations was founded in 1945, there had been nine male Secretaries-General but not one woman.

“This is unacceptable and needs to change. “Unfortunately, the campaign to select a woman as the next leader of the United Nations ended in disappointment in 2016, despite there being numerous highly qualified and eminent women candidates with impressive resumes in the running”.

Kul Gautam, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of the UN children’s agency UNICEF told IPS: “I believe Antonio Guterres deserves a second term as Secretary-General of the United Nations.”

He was unduly hampered from doing much during his first term, which sadly coincided with that of Donald Trump as President of the US. As the whole world knows now, Trump did not care much for international organisations and was an anti-UN unilateralist.

“In the absence of a more supportive US president, Guterres needed to be able to count on the strong support of at least two or three other Permanent Members of the Security Council and some of the more influential emerging powers and the G-77”.

Nevertheless, said Gautam, Guterres has been generally highly principled, consistent, eloquent and passionate in advocating for a bold agenda on climate change, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Universal Health Coverage (UHC), and gender equality. He has been highly successful in bringing more women in senior positions at the UN.

But still, said Gautam, “Guterres has been a bit too soft-spoken on human rights, and in more forcefully confronting the likes of Saudi Arabia, Hungary, the Philippines, Egypt and China on human rights issues.”

But on balance, he has proven to be thoughtful, measured, wise, mature and diplomatically very deft. It will be hard to find another person who combines his qualities and commands the unanimous support of the P-5 in 2021, he added.  “The chances of getting someone worse are far higher than getting someone better, unless the whole election/selection system for the UN’s top leadership positions is completely overhauled, which is highly unlikely at present.”

After Guterres’ second term, in 2026, he said, “let’s hope we will have a revamped election/selection system and several shining female candidates”.

“Already, we should seek a commitment from the UNSC, as well as the UNGA, that they will make every effort to proactively search for a highly qualified female leader as the next UNSG”.

“The world has waited long enough and it is overdue for the UN to exemplify what it preaches about gender equality and women’s empowerment by appointing an outstanding female leader as the world’s top diplomat in 2026,” said Gautam.

Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General told IPS, in terms of geographical rotation, it will be the turn of Eastern Europe to field a candidate for Secretary-General.

He singled out Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, the former Director-General of UNESCO and Kristalina Georgieva, the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), also from Bulgaria, as potential women candidates.

“A prominent female candidate with a proven record would present a credible challenge” to Guterres, he added.


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