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Campaign to elect a woman to be the next United Nations Secretary General picks up steam

There are as many women as men running for the post.  And there's Angela Merkel.

David Usborne
New York
Tuesday 24 May 2016 17:30 BST
The UN General Assembly has been screening applicants
The UN General Assembly has been screening applicants

The campaign to elect a woman to lead the United Nations for the first time in its history is gathering pace with the field of official candidates for the job now evenly split between the genders.

With the second term of Ban Ki-Moon set to expire at the end of 2016, the final decision on who should replace him will ultimately rest with the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, including Britain. London has openly supported finding a female Secretary General.

The contest of the world’s diplomat-in-chief has become at least partially transparent this time around with candidates being asked to make public pitches to the UN General Assembly. A first round of presentations happened in April; a second batch of runners will be heard next month.

Susana Malcorra, the foreign minister of Argentina, has jumped in

Unprecedented for certain, meanwhile, is the interest being shown in potentially picking a woman. After the Foreign Minister of Argentina, Susana Malcorra, a veteran of the UN system and a former Chief of Staff to Mr Ban, announced on 20 May her intention to seek the position, the full field of candidates became gender-balanced, with five men and five women running.

“I think there is a huge achievement in what has already happened by it being an open process and that there is parity within the nominations,” Shazia Rafi, a founding member of the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary General, told The Independent. “It is five men and five men now and you have some very qualified women.”

All eight Secretaries General so far have been men. Ensuring the ninth is not also a man is the urgent focus for Ms Rafi’s campaign, which uses the Twitter hashtag, #She4SG.

“I think finally we are getting some recognition that the goal of the women peace and security agenda is the actual agenda of the UN and that everything that the UN deals with…comes from the women,” Ms Rafi, a former Secretary General of Parliamentarians for Global Action, offered.

“Women represent 51 of the global population, yet they had not have had that level of global recognition before,” she added, saying that having a woman at the top could automatically change how the UN approaches conflict prevention in the world and confidence building.

The UN Security Council will have a first straw poll vote on whom among the candidates it might favour in July with the intention of revealing its final choice before the end of October. If there is no obvious consensus figure it is perfectly possible new candidates could jump in even at that last moment. One among those frequently mentioned is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Because of her long experience with the UN system and a generally sound reputation within it, Ms Malcorra’s entry into the race is significant. Two things could stand in her way, however: Russia’s insistence so far that the winning candidate must come from Eastern Europe and possible British reluctance to vote for an Argentinian because of the Falkland Islands.

Moscow’s geographical preference could also crimp the candidacy of Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and director of the UN Development Programme, UNDP. She and António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who has also run the UN’s commission for refugees, may have left the most positive impressions after the April round of presentations.

Britain, like the other permanent five members, is declining openly to back anyone, including Ms Clark, even though she is the former leader of a Commonwealth country. The UK Government believes it deserves some the credit, however, for the new openness being brought to what hitherto has been an entirely behind-closed-doors process, with the General Assembly interviews.

“Those hearings have made a difference by highlighting the strengths of some candidates and the very clear weaknesses of others,” a UK diplomat said, adding also that London “wants to see as many women candidates as possible. We think its a good thing.”

Certainly one of the most high profile women in the UN system at the moment, Ms Clark is also known to have made enemies at the UNDP, not least because of steps she took early on in her tenure significantly to reduce numbers at the agency’s head office in New York.

That ruthless streak, as some describe it, could theoretically endear her to some governments who believe it’s time to have a UN leader willing to tackle some of the organisation’s bloat. On the other hand it runs up against an old adage that is applied to the murky business of choosing a UN leader: do the world powers really want a General or would they rather have a Secretary, who will be less likely to get too big for their boots?

That is a question that should also be applied to the persistent rumors about Ms Merkel. (Rumours is all they are since she has said nothing publicly about wanting to relinquish the chancellorship to take the post.)

Ms Merkel is a woman and could almost pass as an Eastern European. (She has Polish blood and grew up in East Germany.) But would Moscow, London, Paris and Washington really want someone of such stature running the shop in New York?

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