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The most powerful diplomat of the world – Will an Eastern European Woman be the next UN Secretary General?

The upcoming elections in the United States are covered by the media in great detail, but there is another election to watch – that of the Secretary General of the United Nations. The current office holder, Ban Ki-moon, is in office until 31 December 2016. Although no specific date has yet been set, elections will be held this year in order to determine his successor. This time there is a good chance it will be a woman, the first in history.

But how is the Secretary General elected? Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that there are few rules that determine the election. Only Article 97 of the UN Charter deals with the election procedure and it states that “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. This lack of formal rules means that past practice largely determines the appointment. S­ince 1946, the Security Council has suggested one candidate for the General Assembly to consider in order to avoid nomination discussions within the Assembly. In a second step, the name is then submitted to the General Assembly which then ratifies the candidate by a two thirds majority. As a matter of fact, no candidate has ever been rejected by the General Assembly.

However, even though only one candidate is presented to the General Assembly, this doesn’t mean that the election procedure is easy. The informal rules and internal politics of the Security Council make the process of naming this one candidate quite the challenge; for instance one of the five permanent members may act upon its right to veto the candidate.

The power struggles within the Security Council have also paved the way for another practice: in order to avoid one of the permanent member states gaining even more power, candidates from one of the permanent Security Council member states are scarcely taken into consideration. There is also the informal rule of regional rotation. Former Secretary Generals have all come from various nations and regions of the world. Trygvie Lie, Dag Hammerskjold and Kurt Waldheim were office holders from Western Europe, U Thant and Ban Ki-moon from the Asian group, Latin America and the Caribbean were represented by Javier Perez de Celluar, and Africa by Boutros Boutris-Ghali and Kofi Annan.

After two mandate periods and 10 years as the Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon's time in office is now coming to an end.
After two mandate periods and 10 years as the Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon’s time in office is now coming to an end.

Could this perhaps give us a clue as to who the next Secretary General might be? Speculations have arisen that it is the Eastern European Group’s turn, since no UN Secretary General has been from that region so far.

Another issue that might indicate who will take over after Ban Ki-moon is the question of gender. Because even though regional diversity exists, no woman has ever held office. But this too might change with the next elections, since there are more female candidates than ever. Currently, there are eight official candidates nominated, four of which are female. A female Secretary General is being considered more seriously than ever; some are even suggesting that there should only be female candidates.

So who are these four women?

First we have Irina Bokova, suggested by the Bulgarian government. She is the UNESCO Director-General. She used to be a member of the Bulgarian parliament and was Minister of Foreign Affairs. Furthermore, she was the ambassador to France and Monaco. She stands for promoting gender equality, fights racism and anti-Semitism and focuses on finding ways to withdraw funding that supports terrorist activities.

Second, Vesna Pusić was nominated by the government of Croatia. She is the current Minister of Foreign and European Affairs in Croatia and is known for being liberal, supporting feminism, gender equality, LGBT rights and European integration. She wants to improve women’s health and welfare.

The third female candidate was suggested by Moldova. Natalia Gherman is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Integration and the daughter of the first President of Moldova. Furthermore, she worked as the ambassador to Austria, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Gherman advocates against human trafficking and promotes European integration.

The most previous female candidate to join the race was suggested by New Zealand and is therefore a candidate for the Western European and Others Group. Helen Clark is the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and is currently the first female Administrator of the United Nations Development Program, one of the highest positions there are within the UN. She is known for being a tough administrator as she cut budgets in her department.

Who will fill the empty seat as the next Secretary General? United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City
Who will fill the empty seat as the next Secretary General? United Nations General Assembly hall in New York City

But while steps are obviously being taken to have a more diverse set of nominees, there are still many issues with the election. It has been criticized by many for lack of transparency. There is no formal campaign, no interviews or specific criteria that a candidate has to fulfil.  As a response to this ever-growing criticism, the Security Council as well as the General Assembly have undertaken steps to make the election process more transparent and open.

A letter was sent to all member states which included the request that they should nominate candidates. President of the General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, plans to hold public meetings in early 2016 in which members of the General Assembly can ask candidates questions.

The job description of the Secretary General is not clear-cut. Much depends on his or her style of leadership and personality. Kofi Annan was often seen as an advocate, whereas Ban Ki-moon is seen as a bureaucrat. Some office holders have been chosen because they were expected to be quiet in office. However, some of them, such as Hammerskjold, were surprisingly active. It remains to be seen how a female or male future Secretary General would tackle problems like the global refugee crisis or the scandals surrounding UN peacekeeping missions. A female Secretary General is in principle supported by many. However, one has to bear in mind that not all member states of the UN are supportive of a female leader. This could limit the influence of a future Secretary General drastically. In any case, the upcoming elections are going to be historic as they might feature the first female or even more likely the first Eastern European office holder – or maybe even both.

Pia Hüsch
Lotta Herz

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