Antonio Guterres (yet another man) is set to become the next and 9th UN secretary General; his nomination was recently confirmed by the General Assembly. I received the news with great disappointment as all along I had hoped that one of the seven women who campaigned for the job would have won, obviously that is not going to happen till at least 5years or ten years time(each term last 5years and most UNSG’s typically serve 2terms). So why am I upset even?

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Antonio Guterres -Designate UN Secretary General

I am upset that for all the UN’s rhetoric on gender equality, it failed to strategically leverage this opportunity to send a symbolic message to the global community that indeed a woman is just as qualified to hold the top job. I am upset that for all its sermonising on equality, women still occupy roughly 25% of its senior positions.I am not saying that any of those women should have been elected simply because of their gender; I am simply saying that all of the women who contested for the job were just as qualified or even arguably more qualified than their male counterparts. As a consequence, the permanent members of the UN Security Council had it in their power to elect any of these women to head the agency(shall explain this later). But I guess that was naive thinking on my part because guess what, out 0f the 15 representatives on the Security Council representing the 5 permanent members of the Security Council, 14 are men. Yes you heard right, 93% of the members of the security council are men!

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From left to right; Irina Bokova, Helen Clark and Christiana Figueres

You see this year, there was a lot of momentum in the UN to see a women elected as Secretary General for the first time in the 71 year history of the UN. Many civil society organisations i.e she4sg campaigned vigorously to see a woman elected for this position. In addition to this, during the screening of the candidates at the General Assembly a few months back, a lot of countries (developed and developing alike) publicly expressed support for a female SG. These people were not just clamouring for a woman for the post for the sake of it but because the women contesting were incredibly qualified, experienced and competent (probably even better than their male counterparts). Let me give a brief overview of these seven women who contested;

  • Prof. Dr. Vesna Pusic was the first Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia and the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs
  • Irina Bokova is the Director General of UNESCO and former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Bulgaria
  • Natalia Gherman was the Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration and Deputy Prime Minister for the Republic of Moldova
  • Helen Clark is the Administrator of the UNDP and Former Prime Minister of New Zealand
  • Susana Malcorra is the current Foreign Minister of Argentina
  • Christiana Figueres is the Executive Director of the UNFCCC
  • Kristalina Georgieva is the European Commissioner for the Budget and Human Resources.

From the foregoing, we can see that if professional qualifications and experience are anything to go by, these women have certainly paid their dues and were definitely qualified for the job or even more qualified than their male counterparts.In addition to this, during the public screenings at the General Assembly, these women performed brilliantly. But unfortunately, because of the way the UN system is set up;if no fundamental reforms are made to the election process, a woman’s ascension to the post will remain impeded by the institutional constraints .So what are some of these constraints?

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From top left Corner to the bottom right; Kristalina Georgieva, Susana Malcorra, Natalia German and Vesna Pusic
  • First, the process of selecting the Secretary General isn’t entirely a democratic process. Even though the UN consists of 193 member states, only the 5 permanent members of the Security Council get to elect  the candidate (UK, USA, China, Russia, France) who is then sent to the General Assembly for approval. Essentially, the General Assembly merely acts as a rubber-stamp; so even though many countries strongly and publicly advocated for a female SG,they had no real power in the actual decision making process. In other words, one can argue that the election process isn’t entirely representative anyway. Now add to this, that of the 15 people who represent these permanent members, only 1 of them is a woman! Tell me how such a system can be totally free of bias or representative of women.
  • Second, there are a lot of back room deals and horse trading that goes on behind closed doors (as expected of any political process) and this has typically played to the advantage of men who can leverage on certain ‘old boys network’. Susana Malcorra put it best; ‘You don’t have a chance if you are a woman; it’s not a glass ceiling, it’s a steel ceiling’.

Regardless of my reservations about the process, I think Antonio Guterres brings a wealth of experience to the job as former Prime Minister of Portugal and most importantly as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.I hope his experience with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) would serve him well in dealing with the global migrant/refugee crises, whose solution seems to have eluded global leadership. In addition to this, I hear he was unanimously voted for by the US and Russia; hopefully this rare show of unity would translate into finding a lasting solution for the war in Syria.

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