Will the UN glass ceiling be shattered this time?

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

A meeting room in the United Nations in New York. [European Commission]

While the contest to select the next UN Secretary-General may not be on a par with the slugging match for the White House, it is beginning to heat up – with some decidedly undiplomatic tactics evident in the campaign to replace Ban Ki-moon, writes Dick Roche.

Dick Roche was a senior Irish Fianna Fáil politician, and Ireland’s former Minister of State for European Affairs.

The rules governing selection of the UN Secretary-General were crafted with a high level of flexibility to avoid deadlock in the appointment process.

The appointment is made by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. Under an understanding reached in 1946, only one name is put forward for the General Assembly’s vote of approval. The five permanent members of the 15 seat Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US (the P5) – have the power to veto a candidate.

By tradition, candidates are not nominated from any of the ‘P5’.  Since the U-Thant period in office (1961-1971), no Secretary-General has served more than two terms.

In 1997, with the aim of ‘strengthening the United Nations system”, the General Assembly adopted resolution 51/241, which provided that the process of selecting the Secretary-General “shall be more transparent”.

That resolution confirmed the system of ‘regional rotation’ – the convention that the Secretary General post rotate amongst the five groups of member states into which the UN is divided and added one further consideration, that in the selection process consideration  “shall also be given to gender equality”.

The 2016 selection process for UN Secretary-General will test whether the UN member states will be true to these principles.

Over the 70-year history of the UN, the Eastern European Group has not held a Secretary-General appointment. Three Secretaries-General have been selected from the ‘Western European Group & Others’ the Asia- Pacific Group and the African Group have each held the position twice and there has been one Secretary General from the Latin American & Caribbean group.

Prior to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ‘relationship’ between members of the Eastern European Group and the USSR was the ‘excuse’ for their exclusion from the top UN job. A quarter of a century after the wall came down, that excuse no longer holds. The fact that eight of

A quarter of a century after the wall came down, that excuse no longer holds. The fact that eight of the twelve candidates put forward to succeed Ban Ki-moon in 2016 have been nominated by countries from the Eastern European Group attests to the interest that exists in the region in the upcoming vacancy.

Regional rotation was very much an issue in 2006, when Ban Ki-moon was selected. Asian nations including China insisted that the nominee must be from Asia.

Member states also stick to regional rotation for other less significant positions.

Unless some exigency propels them to do so it is hard to explain why the principle should be jettisoned this year.

If the 1997 General Assembly Resolution is anything other than so much diplomatic hot air 2016, should be the year when a woman shatters the UN glass ceiling and becomes UN Secretary-General.

The UN identifies gender inequality as one of the remaining major barriers to human development. The fact that in its 70-year history the UN has never appointed a woman Secretary General is inexcusable.

The 2016 Secretary General selection process will be a first test of UN credibility on gender equality. No woman candidate from Asia came forward for nomination in 2006 when Ban Ki-moon was selected. Suggestions that women candidates might come forward from other regions were discouraged because of the regional rotation principle.

If it fails to select a woman candidate in 2016 the already damaged reputation of the UN will take a further and deserved knock.

On the positive side, the process that is being applied to the 2016 nomination process for Secretary General is a little less opaque than that of the past.

This time out member states were invited to nominate candidates. In April the candidates were invited in to make presentations in open sessions at the UN HQ in New York where General Assembly members could question them.

Following the hearings straw polls were conducted, on 21 July and 5 August, amongst the 15 members of the Security Council.

In the straw poll process member states indicate their ‘encouragement”, “discouragement” or “no decision” for each candidate.

Polling which was ‘confidential’ took place behind closed doors but the details became publically available as soon as the ‘polls closed.

The straw poll process is meant to shorten the list of candidates allowing the ‘real selection process’ – the horse trading amongst the P5 to start. That has not happened so far and more polls could follow.

After the 21 July poll one candidate, Croatia’s Vesna Pusić, withdrew from the contest.

The 5 August poll anchored four candidates Igor Lukšić (Montenegro) Natalia Gherman (Moldova), Miroslav Lajčák (Slovakia) and Christiana Figueres (Costa Rica) at the low end of the list, leaving seven candidates in contention.

Four of those – Irina Bokova (Bulgaria), Vuk Jeremić (Serbia), Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia) and Danilo Türk (Slovenia) fulfill the regional rotation criterion. The other three António Guterres (Portugal) who led in both straw polls, Susana Malcorra (Argentina) who came joint second in terms of endorsements and Helen Clarke (New Zealand) do not.

Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal and Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees emerged as the lead candidate in both straw polls, although like almost all candidates he lost ground between the July and August straw polls.

Guterres faces two hurdles which he cannot overcome. He is clearly out if the UN treats the matter of gender equality seriously. He also fails on meet the rotation requirement.

Malcorra, the Argentinian Foreign Minister and, until December 2015, Ban Ki-moon’s Chief of Cabinet, came second in the straw polling and was the only candidate to increase the number of endorsements won between the first and second poll.

Malcorra meets the gender requirement but fails to clear the ‘regional hurdle’. Minister Malcorra  faces other potential problems.

During a visit to Argentina earlier this month Ban Ki-moon made an extraordinary gaffe. Ban while “speaking privately” gave a very public endorsement to Malcorra. The Secretary General crossed a line departing from the neutrality expected from an incumbent. Recognising a possible problem Ban immediately explained he was speaking “strictly privately”, although he had spoken at a public reception.

Ban may well have done his protégée no favours.  At a time when there is a growing discontent with the running of the UN when many are demanding change Ban’s endorsement of his former chief of cabinet looks wrong and is unlikely to attract support from those who want change in the UN – including many in the US, and this is a sensitive time for the US.

Ban’s uncharacteristically clumsy intervention has done Malcorra a second harm: it has brought the scandal about the manner in which UN ‘management’ during his watch dealt with sexual abuse by UN peacekeeping forces into the picture. The whistle blower and Swedish diplomat, Anders Kompass, exposed that scandal. Instead of properly investigating the allegations the UN Oversight Service investigated Kompass who subsequently resigned his UN position in protest.

An independent panel found that UN managers had abused their authority. Malcorra who was Ban’s chief of staff while not accused of abuse of authority was criticised for a ‘conflict of interest’ by the independent panel.  UN insiders suggest Malcorra acted as she did to protect Ban making the Secretary General’s intervention look like he was ‘repaying a debt’.

Helen Clarke, the former New Zealand Prime Minister who is classified as a candidate from the Western Europe & Others group clearly meets the gender balance requirement but like Guterres and Malcorra falls on the regional hurdle. At one time seen as a possible ‘front runner’ in the competition Clarke did not do as well as had been expected in the straw polls. She has complained about the ‘old boys network’ favouring male candidates, which, while not wrong, may not endear her to some of the more misogynistic habitués of UN HQ. Many observers are suggesting Clarke’s candidacy is in decline.

Turning to the four ‘lead contenders’ who do meet the rotation criterion:  all four candidates lost ground between the first and second straw polls.

Türk, the former President of Slovenia & former ambassador to the UN and Kerim, the former Macedonian Foreign Minister who was President of the 62nd Session of the UN General Assembly in 2007-8, both showed significant drops in their endorsement levels.

Jeremić, the former Serbian Foreign Minister who chaired the General Assembly in 2012-3, also put in a very solid performance in both straw polls and dropped only one endorsement between July and August.

The key problem for Türk, Kerim and Jeremić, is that while they meet the rotation requirement, they fall down on gender equality.

Bokova, Director General of UNESCO and former Bulgarian first deputy minister for foreign affairs, who like virtually all other candidates fell back between the two rounds is the only candidate who meets the rotation requirement and who can break the UN glass ceiling by becoming the first woman UN Secretary General.

Importantly gender is by no means the only ‘trump card’ in Bokova’s hand. She has a much stronger CV than the other candidates who meet the rotation threshold.

Bokova’s life experience spans the bridge between east and west. She received her early training in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and completed studies at the University of Maryland and at Harvard.

Detractors – particularly those supporting another Bulgarian politician who failed to win the Bulgarian nomination – like to focus on the former, conjuring up an image of Bokova as “Putin’s candidate”, but omit to reference the second.

The same group also make much of Bokova’s family background ignoring the fact that it is not unlike that of millions of Europeans born before the Berlin wall came down and overlooking her own personal journey. They also forget to mention the courage, skill and tenacity Bokova demonstrated when championing Bulgaria’s entry to the EU and NATO at a time when many in her country had decidedly mixed feelings about both.

Bokova has demonstrated her vote-winning capacity at UN level being twice elected as Director General of UNESCO. Within UNESCO she has been a reforming presence, reinvigorating a UN agency that was in trouble when she took over.

In UNESCO she has shown considerable skill in handling sensitive political issues. Her capacity to navigate complex political minefields is demonstrated in her handling of very thorny issues that arise from the rich heritage of the Middle East.

Her handling of the controversy that cropped up over the classification of the Western Wall in Jerusalem is a case in point.

Bokova’s diplomatic skills prevented UNESCO being dragged into political controversy. Her sensitive handling of the issue was recognised by the Knesset. Israeli and US Jewish leaders have also acknowledged Bokova’s work to combat anti-Semitism and her promotion of Holocaust education. In 2015. the Simon Wiesenthal Centre awarded Bokova its annual award.

Ironically, given this recognition – or maybe because of it – there has been a particularly ill-informed attempt to ‘blame’ Bokova for the successful 2011 campaign by the Palestinian Authority for admission to UNESCO.

This is an issue for the radical right in the US, and no doubt those propagating the myth hope that their doing so might lead to a US veto of Bokova.

However, the rules governing admission to UNESCO are clear-cut. States that are members of the UN are entitled to membership. In the case of states that do not meet this requirement admission occurs only after a recommendation of the Executive Board is endorsed by a two-thirds majority of UNESCO’s General Conference. Admission is not the prerogative of the Director General.

Bokova has also won international respect for her outspoken campaigning against the destruction of heritage sites in Iraq, Syria and Mali.  She has also focused UNESCO on issues relating to democratic values such as freedom of expression and safety of journalists, matters where the organization has been silent in the past.

Bokova has faced the toughest contest of any of those running for Secretary General. As an early frontrunner, this is not unusual. The issue has not been anything that she has done or failed to do; rather, as mentioned, much of it arises from frustrated ambition of another Bulgarian politician [Kristalina Georgieva].

Rather than buckle under what has, at times been a bitter campaign or respond in kind the contest has demonstrated other attributes which Bokova holds, a quiet dignity under pressure, an ability to roll with the punches and character – three attributes needed by the world’s top diplomat.

The outcome of the straw polling in July and August has not been as decisive as some might have hoped when the ‘more open’ new procedures were put in place.  There will be some further ‘pruning’ of the list before the permanent members of the Security Council, and the P5, get down to the serious haggling.

Looking over the field of ‘runners’ while the end vote may still be a way off the only certainty is that a sometimes fractious contest has demonstrated that Irina Bokova is the candidate who best ‘ticks all the boxes’.

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