Overnight, the United Nations Security Council held its sixth and final straw poll to select the next UN secretary-general. It has decided to recommend the General Assembly appoint Antonio Guterres to the top job. Guterres will be the ninth person to hold the position.
Fifty-two nations had joined a campaign to ensure a woman was appointed to the position. Known as the #She4SG campaign, it kicked off in earnest in March 2015. Even the current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, had said it was “high time” a woman was appointed to the role.
A total of seven highly competent and qualified women were candidates at various points in a race that was unprecedented in its openness. So, why didn’t one of them win the recommendation?
To begin with, the UN isn’t necessarily a meritocracy. Senior positions are filled on regional and national lines, even if the office-bearer is not allowed to prioritise the views of their home country.
The Eastern European regional grouping has never had a secretary-general. There were reports that Russia would not support anyone who was not from Eastern Europe. That comes with its own problems, in that such a candidate would need to be neither too pro-Russian to upset the Americans, nor too independent to upset the Russians.
The Latin American and Caribbean grouping has only had one secretary-general and it was quite some time ago, so it would have been reasonable for the recommended candidate to come from there.
By the end of the fifth straw poll, the leading woman in the race was Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister. Malcorra is very familiar with the workings of the UN system, but she still only placed third in the poll. She had previously served as chief-of-staff to Ban before going on to serve as under-secretary general of field support, heading the UN department responsible for supporting peacekeeping and political missions.
The wildcard in the race was Bulgaria’s Kristalina Georgieva. Her credentials were presented on September 29 and she undertook informal briefings with the General Assembly on October 3.
Georgieva is a former vice-president of the World Bank and is currently serving as vice-president of the European Commission. Her work there has been very popular. She has been credited with improving co-ordination within the European Union (and within the commission), and between humanitarian and military players in order to meet the dual challenge posed by expanding needs and shrinking budgets. These skills would be highly valuable at the UN.
As European Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid, and Crisis Response she was responsible for co-ordinating all EU aid to the 2010 Haiti earthquake, pushing the EU to be the biggest donor to the disaster response. She also co-ordinated the EU humanitarian response to the earthquake in Chile and floods in Pakistan; the food crisis in the Sahel; and the ongoing conflict in South Sudan.
Perhaps UNESCO’s ineffectiveness to protect such cultural sights as the Bamiyan Buddhas and Palmyra rang too close to concerns about the effectiveness of the UN as a whole for her to be considered. But it was Russia’s refusal to endorse Bokova that led the Bulgarian government to nominate Georgieva in her place.
Despite the general need to select someone from Eastern Europe, and the widespread desire to select a woman, the Security Council selected another man from Western Europe.
Guterres was an exceptional High Commissioner for Refugees. He was Portuguese prime minister from 1995 to 2002. He is also member of the renowned Club de Madrid, an alliance of former heads of state and heads of government working to improve democratic institutions and leadership.
There was one other key female contender for the job: former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark. Like Australia, New Zealand is in the Western Europe and Other regional grouping. She has headed the UN Development Program for many years. Clark oversaw the important last push to achieve the Millennium Development Goals – which, though not without disappointments, have been incredibly successful.
Clark then went on to oversee the negotiation of the far more comprehensive and inclusive Sustainable Development Goals. This new development framework took a massive negotiation effort involving all member states.
Clark is well-liked internationally and was the most-popular candidate with UN staff. She had sound environmental and social credentials that would have been important for a secretary-general. She gained the latter from the policies and portfolios she pursued in the New Zealand government and the former from action on climate change during her time at the UN.
Early in the race, Malcorra said the selection process was sexist. It may well be. In 2015, only 25 of the 121 special and personal representatives, envoys and advisors of the secretary-general were women.
Some UN departments have more engagement with the Security Council than others. Issues of displacement and humanitarian need often come before the council, but development issues don’t. Nor do issues of education, culture and science.
If positions that regularly require engagement with the Security Council continue to be filled by men, how is the Security Council to become as familiar with the leadership of women?
Nonetheless, the appointment will be voted on before the closing of the 71st regular session of the General Assembly currently underway in New York. Guterres will take up the role on January 1, 2017.