Over the next year, the United Nations will make a critical choice. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term ends Dec. 31, 2016, and a new leader will replace him. In the past, the election of a successor has taken place in the fall of a secretary-general’s final year in office, but the debate is heating up early this time around.
Since the birth of the United Nations in 1945, eight men, from Norway, Sweden, Burma (or Myanmar), Austria, Peru, Egypt, Ghana and South Korea have held this important post. The next secretary-general should be a woman.
The U.N. Charter states, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” This has traditionally meant a process of secret consultations by council members, primarily the council’s five permanent members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. The transition to Ban’s successor has been a matter of speculation for months, and unofficial campaigning has already begun. The final choice must get affirmative votes from nine of the 15 Security Council members, with no objections from any of the veto-wielding permanent members. The final candidate will then be presented to the General Assembly for confirmation.
Historically, the General Assembly has confirmed secretaries-general by consensus. But in 1991 the U.N.’s Africa Group said it would call for a vote in the General Assembly if an African was not nominated. The group had enough states in its camp to defeat any non-African, and the Security Council responded. Similar pressure could be exerted today to encourage the council to select a woman.
The process has always been secretive. There is no transparency, no apparent search process, no job description and no pool of candidates. As far as anyone can tell, no woman has ever been seriously considered.
In the 70 years since it was created, the United Nations’ effort to secure equality and opportunity for all women has been a critical goal, as demonstrated by the thousands of people from all over the world who attended the Commission on the Status of Women conference at U.N. headquarters in New York last month.
Many women, and men, feel strongly that the selection process should be opened up. A genuine search should be launched for the best possible female candidates. The excuse that there are not enough qualified women to choose from is no longer valid, if it ever was. Numerous distinguised female leaders have acquired deep experience as presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, foreign ministers and diplomats. Many of them possess all the key qualifications for this challenging post: experience in multilateral relations; a commitment to peace, justice, human rights and other fundamental goals of the United Nations; and intelligence, eloquence and proven communications and managerial skills.
The U.N.’s top leader has no military and no budget, except for what the member states decide to provide. A secretary-general’s strength lies in his or her powers of persuasion and ability to provide a moral compass for the world. The selection of a woman as secretary-general would send a strong and inspiring message at this challenging time. Women make up half the world’s population, and it is time that the nations of the world choose a woman for this significant position.
Gillian Sorensen is a former U.N. assistant secretary-general and national advocate at the U.N. Foundation. Jean Krasno is a lecturer at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.