Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova enters race for UN leadership

Irina Bokova, in her Paris office. [Georgi Gotev]

Bulgaria’s foreign ministry yesterday (9 February) formally announced its nomination of UNESCO chief Irina Bokova for UN Secretary-General.

“The ministry of foreign affairs sent a letter, nominating Mrs Irina Georgieva Bokova for the post of Secretary-General of the United Nations,” the ministry said in a statement.

“Given her background and experience, Mrs Bokova may be one of the top candidates in the upcoming campaign for UN Secretary-General,” it added.

The UN’s next chief will take up their post on 1 January 2017, replacing Ban Ki-moon, who has held the job for two five-year terms.

Bulgaria’s Bokova, 63, was the first woman to head the UN’s culture body UNESCO, and the first leader from the ex-Soviet bloc when she was elected in 2009.

>>Read: Bulgaria’s Bokova becomes first woman to lead UNESCO

UNESCO’s admission of Palestine as a member in October 2011 spelled problems for Bokova, with the United States immediately suspending its funding of the UN body.

>>Read: Palestinians win UNESCO seat, denounce US stance

>>Read: USA loses voting rights in UNESCO

But the former foreign minister was reelected, and her second term is due to expire at the end of 2017.

“I know that I will win the UN vote,” Bokova has confidently told national television channel Nova.

There has been much speculation over whether the UN will finally get its first female leader, after the eight men who have led the world body since 1946.

A former Bulgarian ambassador to France and Monaco, Bokova has recently been criticised over her privileged upbringing in a prominent Communist family.

Her father, Georgi Bokov, was editor-in-chief of the Communist Party newspaper, Rabotnichesko Delo.

Bokova received an elite education abroad, first at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, and later at the University of Maryland, and at Harvard, in the United States.

After stints at the Bulgarian foreign ministry and its UN mission in New York, Bokova was elected a lawmaker for the Socialist Party after the fall of Communism in 1989.

Bokova was appointed deputy foreign minister to coordinate Bulgaria’s relations with the European Union between 1995 and 1997.

She briefly served as foreign minister from November 1996 to February 1997, when she led the country’s bid to join the EU.

>>Read: Bokova: There was opposition in Bulgaria against membership application

Bokova speaks fluent English, French, Russian and Spanish, and is married with two children.

Eastern Europe’s turn

It is Eastern Europe’s turn to lead the world organisation. A strong candidate from this part of the world, especially a woman, would be well-placed to take the post.

According to reports, Slovenia nominated its former President, Danilo Turk; Croatia has nominated its former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vesna Pusi?; Slovakia has nominated its Foreign Minister, Miroslav Laj?ák; and Portugal said it would nominate the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres.

The choice of UNSG is governed by Article 97 of the UN Charter in just seventeen words: "The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council."

To be recommended, a prospective Secretary-General must receive the votes of 9 members of the Council and no vetoes. Thus the Charter provides for two distinct stages: The Security Council, a principal organ of the UN, is responsible for the first, the selection of the proposed SG. The General Assembly has the second, the power of appointment. In 1946 the Assembly asked the Council to recommend a single person, and to handle the matter privately. So it has been since.

On 11 September 2015, the five permanent members of the 15-member United Nations Security Council, under pressure from the broader membership of the 193-member Organization, accepted an intrusive role for the General Assembly, in which all members are represented, in the selection of the Secretary-General, heretofore handled in secrecy by the Security Council. Candidates for SG will be invited world-wide, and the full membership will be able to examine those candidates and their CVs in real time. There is the prospect of public grilling of aspirants.

It is expected that in January 2016 the President of the General Assembly of the UN and the President of the Security Council for the respective month would send letters to all 193 member countries, announcing the opening of the procedure. This would open the process of formal nominations. It is expected that by September 2016 the Security Council would make its decision for the next UN Secretary General.

The previous Secretary-Generals having been Ghana's Kofi Annan (1997-2006), Egypt's Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), Peru's Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982-1991), Austria's Kurt Waldheim (1972-1981), Myanmar's U Thant (1961-1971), Sweden's Dag Hammarskjöld (1953-1961) and Norway's Trygve Lie (1946-1952).

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