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Rights Activists Want a Feminist Woman to Be the Next UN Boss. Why Not?

This article was originally published in Passblue on June 25th 2024 by Click here to read the original piece. 


António Guterres taking the oath of office for his first five-year term as UN secretary-general, beginning on Jan. 1, 2017. He is in the middle of his second term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2026. Civil society groups worldwide are demanding that the next UN leader not only be a woman but also a feminist. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

The names topping an informal survey last spring on which woman should become the next leader of the United Nations for the five-year term starting in 2027 were not surprising. The top three in the PassBlue poll were Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile; Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados; and María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, a former president of the UN General Assembly.

The fourth runner-up was Amina Mohammed, the UN deputy secretary-general. The top two write-in candidates were Jacinda Ardern, a former prime minister of New Zealand, and Dunja Mijatovic from Bosnia and Herzegovina, formerly the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.

All these women have experience as high-level government, UN or regional intergovernmental officials. Without a doubt, it is high time for the UN to have a woman leading the organization if it wants to remain relevant in our fast-changing world.

One woman who was not included in the survey but who has declared her candidacy is Colombe Cahen-Salvador, a French citizen and co-founder of the civil society group Atlas Movement. She has not held a top-level government, UN or intergovernmental position and has not yet been endorsed by a government.

However low her chances, Cahen-Salvador is catching attention because for the first time in history, a civil society organization has put forward a candidate who is exposing the deeply political selection process of the secretary-general, which is controlled by a few countries.

“The secretary-general is chosen in a clouded process by countries seeking to uphold the status quo,” Cahen-Salvador said in an interview I had with her recently. “We must have a UN with the necessary competencies, legitimacy and leadership if we are to survive wars, poverty, pandemics, dictatorships, climate change and other crises.”

While no official UN document says explicitly that government endorsement of a candidate is a prerequisite, everyone who knows how the UN operates is aware that no one gets a high-level UN position, let alone that of the secretary-general, without a government’s endorsement. Or without the approval of the UN Security Council!

The support for a woman UN secretary-general is critical for two reasons: It addresses the 80-year-gender imbalance in the UN’s highest position and it challenges the UN’s rules to build an institution in which civil society has more access to policy and decision-making and a strong voice in its work.

The UN Charter says, “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war . . .” It doesn’t say, we the Governments . . .”

But make no mistake! Many women’s rights organizations want the next UN leader to be a woman not only because we want the UN to take gender parity seriously, but we also need to be on the same page about which woman, what kind of woman and other criteria. As the lifelong peace-builder and feminist leader Cora Weiss says, we need more than ovaries!

Having a woman secretary-general will not change global dynamics at the UN, especially if the governments are the ones only nominating the candidates and the five permanent (P5) members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — veto candidates because they disagree with the person’s positions on human rights, disarmament, feminist multilateralism and other politically sensitive but vital issues.

For women’s rights organizations that support the call for a woman leader, it is critical that we agree with the criteria first and then propose names that meet those criteria. The following criteria are non-negotiable:

  • Demonstrated feminist values, such as empathy, compassion, courage, inclusiveness, transparency and accountability;
  • Connectedness with communities, particularly those directly affected by wars and crises
  • Proven leadership and managerial ability in an international organization

The selection process, even the qualifications of the secretary-general, is astonishingly opaque. The only rule clearly nailed down is that in accordance with Article 97 of the UN Charter, the secretary-general is appointed by the General Assembly based on a “shortlist” (which historically has contained the name of only one candidate) provided by the Security Council. The P5 exercise the greatest power in the selection process by virtue of their veto.

The entire process lacks transparency and accountability, even a pretense of a merit-based, strictly fair-assessment procedure. This shocking near-papal secrecy prompted the campaign of 1 for 8 Billion, a group of civil society organizations and networks worldwide that demanded in 2016, when António Guterres was first selected, “an open, inclusive and merit-based selection process that offers the best chance to find the most effective Secretary-General.” The 1 for 8 Billion proposed 10 reforms to the process, including the publication of the selection criteria for the secretary-general’s position.

In March 2024, 1 for 8 Billion coordinated a joint letter to all 193 UN permanent representatives, asking them to address the historic gender imbalance by announcing that their country will consider nominating only women candidates for the next secretary-general selection process, which should begin formally in fall 2025.

The effort by 1 for 8 Billion is a welcome development, but since democracies in many places across the globe continue to be assaulted and authoritarian regimes proliferate and if nominations for secretary-general are left solely with the states, civil society voices will remain silenced.

Since 2015, these organizations have advocated for genuinely open and transparent hearings with all candidates both at the UN and offsite, in which the media and civil society can play an appropriate role in the selection process. So, we must demand even more than what was accomplished in 2016 for a broad, deeply meaningful role for civil society to take in all phases of the process. (Guterres’s first term ended in 2022, when he was reselected with no opposition for a second term that ends on Dec. 31, 2026.)

Our role is to help establish the criteria, the nominations and the interviews with the candidates. Our expanded participation will improve transparency and accountability in the procedures as well as discourage backroom deals, however inevitable they will be in the runup to the ultimate choosing.

Civil society, especially women’s rights organizations, will integrate feminist perspectives to expose patriarchal decision-making structures and address power imbalances. Is Cahen-Salvador the candidate who doesn’t know the rules? Or does she know them but disregard them to challenge the status quo and revitalize the UN?

I believe it’s the latter. What do you think?


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