The United Nations (UN) turns 70 years old this year. There are many voices praising the institution for its achievements as well bringing to light the vital need for reform. Among these voices is Jeffrey Sachs, who has been cited praising the UN for its recent triumphs, such as the nuclear deal between Iran and the United States. He also brings attention to the areas in need of reform making suggestions that include: increasing funding from member states, strengthening expertise in various areas of sustainable development and changing the structure of the Security Council.
One of the most common suggestions that is being pushed this year is the appointment of a woman Secretary General, as the current Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon moves toward the end of his second term on December 31, 2016. Since the establishment of the UN in 1945 eight men in a row have held the post. There are key reasons why this pattern should change. Firstly, it would be part of the process to increase the transparency of the selection process and make it more democratic. Secondly, such an appointment would put into practice the concepts of gender equality and the empowerment of women, two of the key elements in the work of the UN.
The Selection Process
The selection process for the Secretary General is secretive, and takes place through back-room deals dominated by the five permanent members of the Security Council, (the US, the UK, France, Russian and China). An effort has not been underway to help make the process more democratic and transparent by allowing member states to elect the Secretary General through a vote. No woman has ever been seriously considered for the position. It is only recently that states such as Namibia and Croatia are leading an effort to give the UN’s 193 members a greater say in the selection process through a resolution that is being drafted. There are new guidelines being negotiated to be finalized this month that will allow member states to nominate applicants and vet finalists.
Members of the UN have been pressing for a woman to succeed Ban Ki-Moon and for member states to nominate female applicants as part of this process. The Government of Colombia, part of the 20% of countries represented by female ambassadors at the UN, is leading an effort to put forward women for the job. So far, 44 governments have signed on to Colombia’s initiative; however the 5 permanent members of the Security Council have not backed it up. Supporters of Columbia’s also include former female heads of state known as “the Elders”, who have called on member states to nominate women for the position.
It is clear that states are not uncomfortable with the idea of a woman taking the position as they have seen women in their own countries take on powerful roles. There are women running countries, companies, and international organizations throughout the world. Furthermore one fourth of the ambassadors representing their countries at the UN are women, which is more than ever before. In fact there has been an informal list of potential candidates circulating which include President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and Alicia Bárcena Ibarra, the executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America, and the Caribbean. Member states are ready for a reform of the selection process and it would be powerfully symbolic to appoint a woman as part of the beginning of this new era. This would not be a hollow symbol but a substantive one as there is an abundance of qualified female candidates from all over the world who could potentially fill the role.
The Empowerment of Women
Gender equality, and the empowerment of women are two key elements of the UN, overseen by bodies like UN Women. Additionally, in 2013 Ban Ki-Moon as part of the post-2015 development agenda recommended gender equality as a major focus. Although great strides have been made for women, there is still a long way to go. Women in every country and industry remain underrepresented mostly and under-paid. Two thirds of those living in absolute poverty are women and girls as they have less access to education, and only 10-20% of women living in developing countries have land rights. UN Women and other such bodies remain under-funded.
It appears that the benefit of empowering women has been less practical and more theoretical because the mind-set that male leadership is the norm has not changed. Therefore appointing a woman to lead the UN and take on arguably the most powerful diplomatic position in the world would be exceedingly significant. As already mentioned, there are a number of qualified women who could bring a wide range of life experiences to the role. Even if once elected a female Secretary General does not implement a strong feminine agenda, her work in that position would set an example and result in the advancement of women’s causes.
A Powerful Step Forward
Having a woman fill the seat of the next Secretary General would be extremely powerful in propelling the UN forward on to a route of reform. Truly giving qualified women the chance to compete for the position would be a part of making the selection process more transparent and democratic and advance the empowerment of women and gender equality. This would allow the UN to put the discourse on these concepts into practice, setting an example for the rest of the world.