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Hopes dimming for a woman to lead the United Nations

Never in the 70-year history of the world body has a woman been secretary-general

By SOMINI SENGUPTA
17:38 September 17, 2016

UNITED NATIONS: Britain has Theresa May. Chile has Michelle Bachelet. In the United States, Hillary Clinton this year became the first woman to clinch a major party nomination for president.

The United Nations, though, still seems to be a man’s world.

Never in the 70-year history of the world body has a woman been secretary-general. And at the moment, it looks like that is not going to change.

Half the 12 people who initially entered the race for the post this year are women, many more than ever before. None has gained much support from members of the Security Council.

In four informal polls so far, one man has held the clear lead: Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal who until recently headed the UN refugee agency. The poll results show council members have flip-flopped on their No. 2 choice for the job — but they have consistently chosen a man.

The list of candidates is by no means closed, and other women could enter as early as next week. But advocates of gender equity both in and out of the UN are bewildered.

“Very disappointed,” is how the Colombian ambassador, Maria Emma Mejia Velez, put it after the first poll in July.

Mejia had helped assemble a coalition of 60 countries to advocate for a woman for the post. In its public appeal a couple of months ago, the coalition pointed out that the UN in its many declarations and documents has repeatedly pledged to promote gender equality, and said it had “the responsibility to lead by example.”

“It surprised me that the members of Security Council didn’t find any of the six worthy of being first or second,” Mejia said after the third poll, in late August.

The one candidate who publicly described herself as a feminist — Vesna Pusic, the former foreign minister of Croatia — got so little support in the council’s polls that she was the first to drop out.

The final vote is expected in October, when the council will send its choice to the full membership of the General Assembly, where approval is a foregone conclusion. Ultimately the decision will come down to the Security Council’s five veto-wielding permanent members, Russia and the United States in particular. Both are expected to choose someone who they perceive does not threaten their national interests.

The secrecy surrounding the council’s informal polls — there is no telling who voted for whom and why — makes it difficult to explain the poor performance of the women in the race. But there are several theories.

Two of the best-known candidates may have suffered because they are perceived as too close to either Moscow or Washington. Irina Bokova, a Bulgarian diplomat and the head of the UN. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Unesco, is widely described as pro-Russian. Susana Malcorra, the Argentine foreign minister and for nearly four years the chief of staff to the current secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, is widely seen as pro-American.

Both deny association with any camp, and both have tried to curry favour with Washington and Moscow. That the selection comes amid a worsening United States-Russia divide further complicates matters.

What explains the unpopularity of the other women is even more mysterious.

Are the highest-profile ones — Malcorra, Bokova and Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand who leads the UN. Development Program — being judged by a different yardstick?

“It is a bad sign that these three very accomplished women who have held high-level positions in the UN and know the UN very well are being judged by a double standard,” Charlotte Bunch, an academic and a longtime advocate for gender equality at the United Nations, wrote by email.

“They are as well or better prepared than the male candidates,” she said, adding that their qualifications also surpassed several previous secretaries-general.

The executive director of the United Nations gender equality agency, known as UN. Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said there were “superbly qualified women” running for the job. “So it is both surprising and disappointing,” she said, “to find a glass ceiling apparently still in force.”

In 2015, the lion’s share of the secretary-general’s senior appointments were men, according to an analysis by a former UN diplomat, Karin Landgren.

Mlambo-Ngcuka said that the next secretary-general, whether a woman or a man, should make “a fundamental, feminist commitment to breaking the barriers to gender equality across the world.” That should include gender equity in staff positions, “zero impunity” for UN staff and peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse, and a refusal to take part in all-male panels, she wrote.

Guterres, the leading candidate, has repeatedly promised to promote gender equity, including appointing 50 per cent of the top jobs to women.

The UN set that goal for itself 20 years ago, and remains nowhere close to meeting it.

— New York Times News Service