Irina Bokova embodies the strategic thinking necessary to navigate today’s challenges successfully at the United Nations, writes Sir Graham Watson.
Sir Graham Watson was an MEP for twenty years, during ten of which he chaired the European Parliament’s Justice and Home Affairs Committee and led its Liberal Democratic group. He subsequently presided over ALDE (2011-15) and is now a member of the European Economic and Social Committee.
Given the extraordinary events of 2016 so far – Brexit, Trump, and much else – the race to select the next UN Secretary-General has slipped out of the headlines. Yet it still matters: the next Secretary-General will face a world in need of strong leadership, with multinational problems ranging from a migrant crisis to battling ISIS to negotiating peace in eastern Ukraine.
It’s fundamental to the equity and fairness of the international system that all parts of the world should have their fair chance at leadership. Eastern Europe, effectively ruled out of consideration during the long decades of the Cold War, has never had a Secretary-General; Western Europe has had three. A quarter-century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s time to reverse history’s bias.
Likewise, in a year when the likes of Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and Theresa May are regularly making headlines, UN members should see the wide field of female candidates as an opportunity to demonstrate that the world’s leadership can walk the walk as well as talking the talk of gender equality. It is fortunate that an Eastern European female candidate remains in the race, with an excellent human rights record and with a positive balance of votes in the most recent straw poll of Security Council members.
Irina Bokova has been ahead of the curve for most of her career, supporting Bulgaria’s Euro-
Atlantic integration, its EU and NATO accession, and serving as a NATO fellow. UN member states – including the permanent members of the Security Council – have already shown their support for her, twice electing her as head of UNESCO, the second time unopposed.
In this year of chaos, it’s clear that the UN needs to find ways to inject itself productively and proactively into the issues most critical to human welfare. Ms. Bokova is a proven international diplomatic mediator, and one who has proven herself capable of handling considerable upheaval in her time at UNESCO. According to a report released by the Universal Rights Group, she has demonstrated the best human rights record and vision of all of the remaining candidates (the only rival whose record was comparable has since withdrawn from the race).
Earlier this year, for example, Irina Bokova’s determined efforts were instrumental in the release of jailed Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Bokova awarded her UNESCO’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize and secured Ismayilova’s freedom from prison with the support of international figures including UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Christiane Amanpour. In an age where dissent is increasingly stifled, UNESCO’s defence of free speech and protection of journalists have become – under Bokova’s leadership – much-needed priorities.
Irina Bokova is the person best prepared to help lead the UN into the future, pledging that her election will bring a time of reform. In her words, “New threats to international peace and stability require new global responses, inspired by renewed collective leadership… Now the world is calling for more united nations. Not less. It is calling for stronger leadership, more effective multilateralism, better diplomacy, deeper dialogue, and new opportunities for cooperation. Not less.” Irina Bokova has stared down ISIS and its cultural cleansing in the Middle East, and built bridges between Eastern and Western Europe in her advocacy of Bulgaria’s integration with the EU. She has championed the rights of women and girls, and fought for the protection of the environment.
This is a woman who embodies the strategic thinking necessary to navigate today’s challenges successfully. I hope the UN Security Council and General Assembly can rise to the occasion.