Scuffles and Transformations: The Sprint for a Woman Leader in an ageing UN establishment

By Andrew Edward Tchie

The sad reality 

As Ban Ki-moon’s term gradually comes to an end, there are lingering debates amongst United Nations (UN) staff and world leaders as to who should replace him as Secretary-General of the UN. While the incumbent of this position has often been decided based on the guidance of regional players and the influence of the five permanent members of the Security Council, demands are being raised internally and externally by several NGO’s and INGO’s for a woman to head up the UN. While there are several legitimate leaders who could successfully fill this position, I believe there are only two principal and possible players who will be the frontrunners for the job. This is especially true when considering Hillary Clinton’s unannounced, albeit clearly anticipated ambition to run for the US Presidency. As Clinton is the strongest and firmest candidate for the Secretary General position in the eyes of many, her absence from the race leaves us with very few hard-hitting and non-conformist female leaders. This credibility dilemma increased after Michelle Bachelet was elected President of Chile on 11 March 2014, after resigning from her position as the head of the UN Women’s agency. If the truth be told, while there are several possible candidates, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Bachelet may have been the world’s best hopes of changing and reforming an ageing establishment that is in dire need of rapid dialysis. This will sadly not happen with the options we will be presented with, as the options we have are not hard-hitting radicals who are ready and willing to take on a challenge and to stand up and be counted for.

The UN has made great strides to reform itself as one of the oldest and largest institutions in the world, and as of November 2014, there were 31 female permanent representatives at the United Nations, the highest rate that has been reported since the organisation’s establishment. Adding to this slow progress (that some would argue to be a “significant increase”), women occupy six seats at the table of the Security Council (namely those representatives of Argentina, Jordan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Nigeria, and the US). The situation for women here is better than across national parliaments. According to Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women, Women in Politics: 2015, only 22 per cent of all national parliamentarians were female in January 2015, a sluggish increase of the 11.3 per cent that was reported in 1995. As of January 2015, 10 women served as Heads of State and 14 served as Heads of Government across the globe. Here, the developing country of Rwanda continues to have the highest number of female leaders or representatives in parliament worldwide, with women there occupying 63.8 per cent of the seats in the lower house.

Please stand up 

For many campaigners these numbers are seen as progress, yet in reality this change has not happened fast enough and has actually contributed to the overall inertia seen in the sluggish race for a dynamic female leader who will not only champion the rights of all, especially women, but who will spearhead the UN’s future. Within the UN there has been a guiding document, enshrined in the January 1946 resolution, which asserts that the selection process for a UN chief should remain private and completely male dominated: a “man of eminence and high attainment” should hold the post. This is funny given that during the archaic period in which this resolution was formulated, those drafting and forming the UN agenda would have literally meant what they said. However, in today’s progressive and somewhat all-inclusive society, does it really make sense to hold fast to this reactionary, idiotic, and reckless way of thinking?

There have so far been eight men and zero women that have headed the UN, with only three female candidates included in past closed-door votes and straw polls that the Security Council uses to make its decisions. The UN’s rotation policy formalised in 1997 further complicated this situation. The idea here was to give each region of the world the opportunity to appoint someone to the UN’s top position. The only region still waiting for this opportunity is supposed to be Eastern Europe, but the dilemma here is that this region is now faced with developing geopolitical burdens which leave it with few constitutive countries that could be deemed even-handed enough to bridge the emerging divide.

Not really game theory 

So who are the possible candidates?

The two top candidates for this position are Irina Georgieva Bokova, a Bulgarian politician and incumbent Director-General of UNESCO who has studied in Russia and the U.S., and Helen Clark, who currently serves as the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and was the 37th Prime Minister of New Zealand serving three successive terms from 1999-2008. While former foreign minister of Serbia Vuk Jeremic could be a candidate, the truth is that the moment his name is mentioned, Washington is likely to veto his nomination. The second runner up would be Kristalina Georgieva, originally from Bulgaria and the incumbent European Commissioner for Budget, Human Resources and Security, who serves as vice-president of the European Commission and is an economist, but who has only recently taken up this post. Then there is Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė, the current and first female President of Lithuania, elected on 12 July 2009 and re-elected in May 2014. She is the first president of the country to be elected for a second term. Yet, realistically speaking, Grybauskaitė is not really a viable candidate. Finally there is the current Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who won the elections in her country on 3 October 2011, and who has served as the leader of the Social Democrats there since 12 April 2005. There are two other possible candidates who could run for the position, but it is highly unlikely that doing so would be on their agendas. The first is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but the truth is that the stigma remaining from Germany’s involvement in the Second World War means that she is unlikely to be an option. Then there is the current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, but it less likely for her to attain the UN’s top post than it is for Robert Mugabe, Idi Amin Dada, Muammar Qaddafi, Yahya Jammeh, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Kim Jong-Un to stop being dictators.

Considering these names, the chances of a woman becoming the Secretary General are pretty small, although there is one possible candidate that might change the contest and transform an ageing UN. In some sense, she is seen as an underdog, but when you think about the role she has played in her nation’s struggle for freedom, reform, and transformation, and that when her country needed a decisive leader, she was ready and waiting to take the bull by the horns and challenge the men in power, Liberia’s current president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is probably one of the strongest candidates alongside Irina Georgieva Bokova and Helen Clark. The other possibilities are candidates originating from the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China. Nonetheless, it is unlikely and against tradition for candidates from these countries to be considered. The fact also remains that many of the potential candidates such as Kristalina Georgieva, Dalia Grybauskaitė, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Angela Merkel, and Christine Lagarde have all made significant strides in their home nations. In this way, the UN is most likely not a career objective for these women as they do not need the UN as a career boost. These women are stronger domestically, where they serve their respective states or the European Union, which is on their doorstep thus allowing them to draw upon and further the regional power of Europe. The second problem is that most of these leaders are their countries’ first female heads of state, and it is likely that they will want to continue in this capacity in the near future. Thirdly, given the ageing position of the UN, it is not a very attractive sell. With its shrinking budgets, disillusioned and frustrated staff, and bewildering and sluggish system, the UN is unlikely to represent a personal goal for any of these female leaders. As mentioned earlier, the front-runner that the world needs is Hilary Clinton; and while most of the world would shout “OH NO NOT THE CLINTONS AGAIN”, the reality is that she is the most likely candidate to get the job done. She also has the capacity to do more to advance the lives of women around the world while simultaneously reforming and breathing life back into the UN. In reality, it is unlikely that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will take the seat because Kofi Annan, of West Africa’s Ghana, has already held the position. Nonetheless, it is likely that whoever is selected will need to be a diplomatic conformist who is unwilling to rock the boat, like Irina Georgieva Bokova or Helen Clark.

Change comes in many forms 

The difficulty with the UN system is that it has been run for decades as a hierarchical, patriarchal, and male chauvinistic organisation. This is one of the reasons why there is a lack of credible, viable, and radical female leaders who can sprint for the leading post with legitimacy. The unheard of and poorly publicised campaign organized by was launched by Equality Now on Sunday, 8 March 2015, with the aim of putting forth a dozen candidates that could contend to be the first female Secretary General of the UN. Unfortunately, the campaign is nothing short of wishful thinking, as nearly a month after its founding, most people are still unaware of what the campaign is actually about or even that it exists. The muffled mutterings of its relevance are limited at best, and many assume it is a campaign associated with the powerless, hesitant, and mandate-less women of the UN.

While more and more women are running businesses, governments, and international organisations, the progress made in this area has been tremendously and unacceptably slow. As momentum builds to select a woman as the next Secretary General of the UN to succeed the current leader Ban Ki-moon in December 2016, it is my view that what we will see displayed over the next year and a half will be nothing short of a routine game of thrones. In reality, there are no legitimate female candidates who can categorically tackle the UN system with strength, clout, and vision. What I expect to see is the continuation of a UN establishment that continues to remain irrelevant in the eyes of many as it increasingly becomes unable to connect to the very people it was mandated and tasked to protect.

As the world’s power balances change and the threat of terrorism and intrastate violence looms large, it is a shame that we are not using this once-in-a-decade opportunity to reform, diversify, and transform an organisation with so much potential. As resurfacing tensions between the East and West over Syria and Ukraine continue to leave the world perplexed and face-to-face with its most difficult challenge in a generation, it is likely that we will see a return to the Cold War-style gridlocks at the UN Security Council. If this is to become the reality, the world runs the risk of descending into a cycle of tit-for-tat vetoing. This is especially true if someone without vision, prominence, and tangible diplomatic abilities takes hold of the wheel at the UN. Now is a time when the position of women has become a dominant part of the global agenda, and it is also now that the discourse on matters such as sexual violence in conflict, human development, FGM, and the modern slave trade has come to greater prominence. It is also a time in which women at the grass-roots levels are rising in the developing world, becoming more mobilised, empowered, and vocal than ever before. With this in mind, it would be ill-advised for the UN to even think twice about not selecting a female head. The UN is at a crossroads when it comes to reform and regaining legitimacy in the eyes of the very people it serves. If it fails in this endeavour, it runs the risk of continuing down a slippery slope that leads only to catastrophe. Nonetheless, greater scepticism remains as to whether the selection of a female candidate for the position will actually deliver and bring about true change. Change is not guaranteed within the UN system just because a woman is selected to lead, especially if there is not a culture of change within the organisation overall. However, one should remain optimistic about the future. Even though one should not anticipate substantial change to occur under the next Secretary General, the selection of a female for the position would spur the hopes of the next generation of young women who can rise up to take up their mantels as formidable forces of change in the future.

Andrew Edward Tchie is a PhD student in Government and Associate Fellow at the University of Essex, and a former Consultant and Research Fellow at the United Nations Development Programme’s Conflict Prevention Programme in Nepal.


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JTW is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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