Europe is lucky to have a candidate fitting the criteria for UN Secretary General

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Irina Bokova [UNESCO]]

In Europe, we are lucky to have a candidate who more than adequately fulfills these criteria. Her name is Irina Bokova, writes Sir Graham Watson.

Sir Graham Watson is a Member of the European Economic and Social Committee. From 1994 to 2014 he was a Member of the European Parliament, during which time he served as Chairman of the Justice and Home Affairs Committee (1999-2002), Leader of the Liberal Group (2002-09) and President of the European Liberal Democratic Party (2011-15). His most widely purchased book, Building a Liberal Europe, was published in 2010. He was knighted in 2011.

‘While Europe’s eye is fixed on mighty things, / The fate of empires or the fall of kings, / While quacks of state must each produce his plan / And even children lisp The Rights of Man / Amidst this mighty fuss, just let me mention / The Rights of Woman merit some attention.’

So wrote the Scottish bard Robert Burns some 250 years ago. And although there has been much progress since then in the role women play in society, 2016 gives Europe a good opportunity to make sure that Ban Ki-moon’s successor, who will be the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations, will – for the first time in the UN’s seventy year history – be a woman. There are too few women in politics in Europe and in the world, and it is high time to empower our talented women leaders.

She will have to fulfil three criteria.

First, she should come from Eastern Europe. There is an established convention within the UN of rotating the top position amongst the different ‘regions’ to ensure diversity and fairness. Eastern Europe is the only region never to have supplied a Secretary General of the UN and this is a golden moment for the region to assert its values on the world stage. It would crown the long and difficult twenty-five year journey from authoritarian government to democracy and from poverty to relative wealth. However, this ‘rotation’ is not carved in stone. It is an unwritten preference and there is a real risk that if Eastern Europe is unable to unite around a credible candidate, it could be overlooked for Latin America, which has supplied only one Secretary General to date.

Second, the candidate will need to be an experienced leader, viewed as a safe pair of hands, one who can act as a bridge between the leading powers, prioritise the prevention, management and  resolution of crises, engender long term peace and stability. These are the qualities embodied by the best Secretaries General, and Ban Ki-moon’s successor must be able to position the UN as a visionary and active forum for dialogue among nations. When the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld took the role as the second UNSG, he was told he was about to take “the most impossible job in the world”. Looking at the challenges the world faces today, there is all the more reason why we need a candidate who is a seasoned diplomat.

Third, the candidate needs experience of the UN system. The United Nations has become a huge bureaucracy, with 40 programmes and agencies and approximately 44,000 staff. An ability to navigate the waters and amass and provision the ships of this huge fleet is crucial to success in delivering a coherent strategy for advance. An outsider – as some previous Secretaries General have found – needs some considerable time simply to understand the workings of the institution and learn how to mobilise the troops.

In Europe, we are lucky to have a candidate who more than adequately fulfils these criteria. She is from Bulgaria. But I refer not to Kristalina Georgieva, that country’s excellent European Commissioner. Kristalina is too valuable to lose from Europe. I mean rather Bulgaria’s official candidate for the post, Irina Bokova, the current Director General and first woman to lead UNESCO – undoubtedly the largest and possibly toughest UN agency – is a seasoned diplomat with several years of high level UN experience. A strong Atlanticist, she championed Bulgaria’s accession to the EU and NATO helping to guide the country back to its rightful place in Europe. Bulgaria has recently submitted her nomination.

UNESCO’s traditional focus is on ‘softer’ international issues such as culture, science and education, but under Bokova’s leadership UNESCO has notably shifted to take a more pivotal role in the fight against terrorism. Countering illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts, combatting violent extremism and preventing youth radicalisation are now rightfully front and centre of their work. And Washington has taken notice. Secretary of State John Kerry has praised both UNESCO and Bokova for their initiatives. President Obama invited her to speak at a global leaders summit on countering violent extremism and ISIS last September. The White House and State Department are also pressing Congress to restart UNESCO’s funding, which was stopped after Palestine’s accession. Her work on combatting anti-Semitism has won plaudits from the Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, the World Jewish Congress and numerous other Jewish and American groups – likely the only UN official to receive such praise given the historically frosty relations between the UN and Israel.

Paradoxically, Bokova is less well known in Europe than she is in the United States, although the impact of her initiatives and influence has been both seen and felt. It was significant that last summer the UK announced its long awaited intention to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention protecting the world’s ancient cultural sites, as well as to fund a modern ‘Monuments Men’ scheme to protect cultural sites from the destruction of war; both of these were pressed for by UNESCO. This week the Italian Foreign Minister has followed the UK by launching a similar taskforce after a meeting with Irina Bokova in Rome. Cultural destruction and artefact trafficking has been pushed higher up Europe’s agenda but few know of the woman behind it.

EU Member States play a pivotal role in the selection of the next Secretary General. The EU should make crystal clear it supports the drive for the next Secretary General to be a woman. That woman must have the right credentials. There appears to be a growing international and cross-party consensus that Irina Bokova is not only the best placed candidate for the role, but also the candidate who best fits the bill – as a natural bridge builder and diplomat and a strong voice in countering violent extremism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance.  It is time for EU Member States to take a closer look at Irina Bokova.

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