With eighteen months still to go before a decision is due to be taken, the race to succeed Ban Ki-moon as the next UN Secretary General is well under way with potential candidates and the selection process itself already the subject of intense debate. The appointment comes as the resurfacing of tensions between East and West over Syria and Ukraine has left the world body facing its most difficult challenge in a generation. The spectre of a UN gridlocked by Cold War-style divisions within the Security Council looms unless someone with real diplomatic skill takes the helm. That’s assuming the permanent members can reach consensus on who that might be in the current atmosphere of mutual suspicion and animosity. The risk of the process descending into a cycle of tit-for-tat vetoing is very real.
Matters are further complicated by the UN’s rotation policy, formalised in 1997 to ensure that every region of the world gets the chance to have one of their own appointed to the top job. As the only designated region still waiting its turn, it is supposed to be Eastern Europe this time. The problem, of course, is that the region straddles the new geopolitical fault line leaving very few countries deemed even-handed enough to bridge the divide. Candidates from Poland and the Baltic states need not apply as far as Russia is concerned. The same goes for most of the other EU member states with Putin still fuming over sanctions imposed by Brussels. The antagonism cuts both ways. The Serb candidate, former foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, would be vetoed by Washington over his country’s strategic partnership with Russia and its rejectionist stance on Kosovo.
Geography isn’t the only consideration. A new and powerful factor in the debate is the growing sense that with the organisation’s seventieth anniversary falling next year it’s high time a woman held the top UN post. As if in Dr Who, the Secretary General keeps regenerating as a man. This is impossible to justify, especially at a time when the status of women has become such a central part of the global agenda through issues like sexual violence, human development and the modern slave trade. As the recent surge of activism in India has shown, the women’s movement across the developed and developing worlds alike is more mobilised and vocal than ever before. Pressure on the UN to reflect this in its choice of Secretary General will only grow.
The ideal solution would be for the Security Council to unite behind a woman from Eastern Europe. Perhaps the only country capable of producing such a candidate is Bulgaria, a Nato and EU member state that has nevertheless maintained good relations with Russia. The two names in the frame are Irina Bokova, the serving executive director of Unesco, and Kristalina Georgieva, a former World Bank economist and current European Commissioner. Both are strong contenders, but Georgieva only took up her new post as Commission Vice-President earlier this month and word in Brussels and Paris is that she would not be given leave to stand for the UN job. Educated in both Russia and the United States, and with real executive experience at the UN behind her, Bokova looks much better placed.
In the event that the countries of Eastern Europe fail to propose a suitable woman candidate, there will be enormous pressure to cast the net wider and consider women from other parts of the world. After all, the General Assembly resolution that formalised the principle of regional rotation gave equal weight to the need for gender equality. Waiting to see how things develop is a cast of capable women with strong foreign policy credentials. This includes Helen Clark, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, and Columbian Foreign Minister, María Ángela Holguín Cuéllar.
As a permanent member of the Security Council with the ability to support or veto any candidate, the UK’s position will be influential. The decision on how to use that influence will fall to whoever ends up Prime Minister next May, yet could be the same whichever party is in power. Labour would prefer to back a woman from Eastern Europe because it believes in European solidarity and gender equality. The Tories would be inclined to do the same because it needs European allies for its proposed renegotiation and has an image problem with women voters. What Ed Miliband would do out of principle, David Cameron would do out of expediency.
The most interesting question is what would happen if a woman candidate from Eastern Europe was not forthcoming? The view in London is that the Buggin’s turn principle is the least important consideration. Whether the next Secretary General comes from Eastern Europe will depend entirely on the qualities of the candidates that come forward. The clamour for a woman, however, will be much harder to resist, and rightly so.
David Clark is the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, and served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001