The United Nations is 75 years old this year, and it has had nine secretaries general. But not one of them has been a woman. Back in 2016 when candidates to succeed Ban Ki Moon were throwing their hats into the ring, there was a real feeling that the right moment might finally have come to have a woman at the top of the UN.This content was published on April 20, 2021 - 16:00
- Português Onde estão as mulheres na cúpula da ONU?
In a voting process that was more transparent and more democratic than any previous contest for the post of secretary general, a number of highly qualified women stood, among them Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva, New Zealand’s Helen Clark, and Susana Malcorra of Argentina. But when all the votes were counted, it was a man, Antonio Guterres, who succeeded.
Now Guterres is standing for a second term, and although it’s believed the selection of the next secretary general will follow the same transparent process as last time, that may be something of a cosmetic exercise, since Guterres has already received endorsements from a number of influential member states, including the UK and China.
In this week’s episode of the Inside Geneva podcast, I ask why it is taking so long to have a woman at the top of the UN, especially if, after all, Guterres wins another five-year term.
Heather Barr, co-director of the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, tells me she’s disappointed that the election for the next secretary general appears to be a foregone conclusion, and hopes women candidates will still come forward.
“It’s really offensive in a way that an organization that is supposed to be focused on trying … to right inequities around the world is perpetuating them over and over again,” she argues.
But is the UN’s record on women so bad? Although, as our analyst Daniel Warner points out, at the moment “two thirds of the 127 top UN posts are held by men”, there have been, and remain, women in some very senior positions.
The major UN aid agencies, such as the UN Refugee Agency, Unicef, the World Food Programme, and the World Health Organisation have all, in the last three decades, been led by women at one time or another.
Michelle Bachelet is currently head of UN Human Rights, Winnie Byanyima is leading UNAIDS. Guterres regularly expresses his and the UN’s commitment to gender equality, and has backed women for senior positions, leading Geneva journalist Nick Cumming-Bruce to conclude that at the very least Guterres “wants to tick that box”.
In fact a somewhat unexpected candidate, a woman, has now emerged to challenge the incumbent. Arora Akanksha is just 34 years old and has spent the last four years working as an audit coordinator for the UN Development Programme. Born in India, she now has Canadian citizenship too, and says she wants to restore credulity to the UN, in particular by prioritising protection for refugees.
But Akanksha has no diplomatic experience, and even India and Canada, who traditionally would be expected to back their own citizens, have declined to support her.
And while some women, like Barr, welcome Akanksha’s candidacy as a breath of fresh air, others are disappointed that no female candidate with a genuine chance at the job has come forward.
As we discuss in the podcast, the process of awarding top UN positions - while it has become more transparent - is also bound up with tradition, and regional preferences. The head of the World Food Programme, for example, is invariably a US citizen. Leading the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) generally goes to the UK.
Now that UK head of OCHA Mark Lowcock is leaving, the hunt is on for his replacement. British candidates are at the top of the short list, leading our podcast panelists to question how appropriate it is that a country which has just very publicly cut its humanitarian funding to Yemen and Syria should lead the UN’s emergency humanitarian relief agency.
It’s a thought provoking discussion, and one that reminds us that, for all its recent commitments to gender equality, and to transparency in the selection process of its top officials, the UN still has work to do. Something then, to put on the to do list of the next secretary general.