The gender gap at the top of the UN, and what to do about it

The last glass ceiling is still in place.  The United Nations will be 70 this year and it has never had a female Secretary-General.  2016 could be the year that a breakthrough might happen, but it won’t unless the Europeans mobilise to prevent another stich up. 

Glass ceilings are smashing all over the place.  Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democrat’s Presidential candidate in 2016, and hey, she might even become the most important woman in the world.  On a slightly less powerful level (unless you’re Greek) the IMF has its first female head.  Even the EU can be described as being run by a woman given Angela Merkel’s authority in Europe.    Across the world two dozen or so countries have female heads – even Muslim countries, like Pakistan and Bangladesh have been led by women.

But the world’s guardian of international peace and security – the one club which can more or less order invasions of 188 countries and penalise others through sanctions if they are not permanent members of the Security Council (which are the USA, China, Russia, France and the UK) has never had a female head.

So with the UN turning 70 this year, will we see a female head in 2016 when Ban Ki-moon’s term ends?  Not unless the EU states become more assertive in their attempt to change the system of selection, and that needs to happen now. 

The procedure for selection is that any member state can nominate an individual and the Security Council, which has the five permanent members plus ten other states, makes a decision though process of elimination. Their choice is then offered to the General Assembly who accepts the nominee.   If one of the contenders (who are usually half a dozen or so), attract a veto from any of the P5 members of the Security Council, they can’t go forward.  However, a winning candidate needs only nine of the fifteen states to vote for them, as long as the P5 do not veto.  What actually happens is that the P5 members shift their position according to how the other ten non-permanent members are likely to swing, so the next session of the UN which begins in late September will be pivotal to the outcome.  Expect a lot of horse trading. 

So why has no woman been in the frame in the past?  Very simply, the candidate is expected to be a senior figure from their country who is no longer in office, a big ask as senior women in politics have only become a recent phenomenon.  The likes of Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Cathy Ashton, Edith Cresson (former French PM for those who don’t remember her unmemorable tenure) or Christine Lagarde, cannot count as the P5 states don’t themselves put up a candidate as a rule.  So the field of female candidates has been fairly thin on the ground till the last decade or so, and since the Secretary General usually serves for two five-year terms there really hasn’t been an opportunity till now.

But this time there is a wealth of female talent from across the world.  There is a former female Heads from the Eastern European countries, two heads of UN agencies (UNESCO and UNDP) who are female, and several senior EU Commissioners as well as one or two senior individuals from the UN itself, without even taking into account other prominent women politicians from wider afield.

But the election system is still a stich up:  First, there is the regional ‘buggins turn’.  So you get one or two candidates from each region of the world.  On that basis, given that the last four have been Latin America (Perez de Cuellar) Middle East (Boutros Ghali), Africa (Kofi Annan) Asia (Ban Ki-moon), it seems that it is probably Europe’s turn.  Hence the importance of the Europeans getting together to push the boat out for a female head.  One problem is that the weird way that UN draws its regional map means that countries like Australia and New Zealand get cast as ‘Western European or Other’ meaning that the pool of candidates can include them on the Europe ticket. The ‘regional’ quota is nonsense.  On my map of the world, Boutros Ghali and Annan both came from Africa, so after Ban Ki-moon if we get an Australian on a European ticket (Kevin Rudd is in the frame) then it will clearly a job hogged by Asia-Pacific for 20 years by the time that tenure ends. 

There are other problems with the UN selection system. Two five-year terms of office are too long.  If you can’t fix a war or other major problem in 5 years, then a reformed system should give you one terms of seven years max.  That would allow for a more capable Secretary –General to come in faster.    

And the voting system which is so arbitrary is clearly inadequate.  The P5 have paralysed attempts to solve too many problems due to their geo-political interests.  Their votes should not cast an absolute veto, but perhaps should be weighted to have more clout than the non-P5 but not absolute power which leads to their favouring the ‘lowest common denominator’ candidate.  The then is the issue of the other ten countries which will have schmoozed their regional partners to get on the SC in an appointment year (2015-16).  They will have made all sorts of promises to their supporters in the region, and will therefore back the candidate ‘for’ their region, rather than the best one for the job.  Does this sound a little like … FIFA.  Well the analogy is tempting. 

So what is needed is a more transparent system through a selection panel and evidence sessions with the five leading candidates.  Even if the SC has the final say, let them not hide behind anonymity when the world gets stuck with an ineffective leader.  But those who want to break this glass ceiling can’t sit idly by.  We need to mobilise our governments to actively build a bloc to support a woman from the EU, or indeed any other region if she is capable.  The point is that we can only change the system if the EU works together, and then to use that clout to push others in a similar direction. 

As I write there are at least five wars going on – some in their fifth year, yet the UN is absent from any serious attempts at peace-making.  We also know that it will be a slate of five men (the P5 heads) who will select the next incumbent, from a slate of 5-6 men, unless we do something about it.  International peace and security is too important to let this continue this way.

posted 3 June 2015