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New Boss at UN: Women, Eastern Europeans Among Diplomats Vying for Secretary-General
The Washington Diplomat / September 2016

By Larry Luxner

What do Argentina, Costa Rica, Portugal and New Zealand have in common with eight Eastern European countries — five of which used to form part of Yugoslavia?

Not much, really, except that all 12 are fielding candidates to replace United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when his term expires on Dec. 31.

Unlike the U.S. presidential elections, the process for selecting a U.N. chief has long been shrouded in secrecy. That’s starting to change, however, and in mid-July, 10 of the 12 candidates participated in a first-ever televised “debate” of sorts hosted jointly by the Al Jazeera TV network and the president of the U.N. General Assembly.

In an unofficial, second straw poll held a week after this unprecedented event, Portuguese diplomat António Guterres — who served as U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005 to 2015 — came out on top. Next on the list was former Slovenian President Danilo Türk, followed by Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova — the current director-general of UNESCO — and two ex-foreign ministers from former Yugoslav republics: Serbia’s Vuk Jeremić and Macedonia’s Srgjan Kerim.

A formal vote to choose the organization’s ninth secretary-general will take place during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in mid-September.

Djerdj Matkovic, Serbia’s ambassador to the United States, says his country nominated Jeremić for the job “mindful of the principle of geographic distribution for leadership in the U.N. system.” That’s a reference to the informal regional rotation practice under which the next U.N. chief is likely to come from Eastern Europe — a region that has never produced a secretary-general.

From 2012 to 2013, Jeremić was president of the UNGA’s 67th session, where he “demonstrated exceptional leadership skills and much-needed activism,” said Matkovic. For five years before that, he was Serbia’s foreign minister.

“He is also the only candidate with a detailed policy platform elaborating on 53 concrete commitments in five main areas — sustainable development, climate change, peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance; human rights and reform of the U.N. Secretariat,” Matkovic said. “As the election process is in full swing, we are encouraged by the fact that after two straw polls, Mr. Jeremic came in second place, the best-ranking candidate from the Eastern European Group. That clearly demonstrates wide support and trust with in the U.N. Security Council for the candidate of Serbia.”

All eight of the current and former U.N. chiefs have been men, and a change is long overdue, says Maguy Maccario, Monaco’s ambassador to the United States.

“I think the qualities women have are the qualities leaders need today,” said Maccario, who was her country’s first consul-general in New York at a time when the wealthy European microstate lacked its own embassy in Washington. “It’s important to have someone who’s going to do the best job, and women have the leadership skills necessary, because we’re more likely to find solutions and try to understand everyone’s points of view.”

New Zealand’s Helen Clark — one of six female candidates for the job — spoke July 13 at the Center for International & Strategic Studies. In introducing her, CSIS President John Hamre noted that ever since 1945, the United States has championed the U.N. as central to its interests.

“But recently, we’ve become a bit disenchanted as a nation, and I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “What distinguished the first and second half of the 20th century was that we had a set of international institutions to deal with transnational problems that we could not resolve ourselves. Americans have forgotten this, and it’s a part of our obligation to bring back this consciousness of the very important role the UN plays to make it a safer and better world. That’s really what’s at stake now when we look at the next leader of the UN.”

Clark, who has headed the U.N. Development Program since 2009, spent nine years as New Zealand’s prime minister. She now hopes to take her leadership skills up to the 38th floor of U.N. headquarters, from where, as secretary-general, she would oversee a staff of roughly 44,000 and an annual budget of $5.4 billion. “I’m very honored to have the full and official support of the New Zealand government,” she said. “Bear in mind that this is the government that defeated my government.”

Clark conceded that the 193-member world body “must step up its performance.”

“I worry for its future,” she said of the U.N. “There is a real risk it could drift to the periphery at a very time when we the people need to have confidence in the U.N.’s capacity to resolve the world’s many problems and not be a bystander. It needs someone of global standing. The secretary-general must also understand and have empathy for the world’s many small states which look to the U.N. to protect their rights and interests — and that comes rather naturally to me.”

Recalling her work in development issues — including those relating to climate change — Clark said: “I don’t think any other candidate could match the engagement I’ve had in Africa, which constitutes about half the Security Council’s business.”

If chosen for the job, which she called “an enormous soft-power position,” Clark said her top two priorities would be strengthening the U.N.’s peacekeeping role around the world, and seeing the secretary-general’s office take the lead on development and environmental issues.

Clark said she would absolutely not tolerate sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers — a reference to recurring scandals that have plagued the “blue helmets” in conflict zones ranging from Haiti to the Congo. She added, however, that “peacekeepers need to be supported in the field” with both financial and strategic resources.

Haiti, in fact, became a focus of Al Jazeera’s televised debate when moderator James Bays asked the five candidates in the second of two panels if the United Nations should apologize to the Haitian people for introducing a deadly strain of cholera that has so far killed 30,000 people and sickened another two million. Of the five, only Costa Rica’s Christina Figueres raised her hand.

A seasoned diplomat with 35 years of experience, Figueres, 60, is no stranger to world politics. Her father, José Figueres Ferrer, was president of Costa Rica three times; her mother, Karen Olsen Beck, served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to Israel in 1982.

“Christina is a very dynamic woman. Anyone who meets her in person can tell you that,” said Román Macaya Hayes, Costa Rica’s ambassador in Washington. “She led a very successful process in the climate change negotiations, moving from essentially a failed Copenhagen meeting to a successful Paris meeting in six years. Coordinating a large number of countries, sometimes with conflicting interests in a complex multilateral setting, to reach an agreement, is a skill set she can apply to anything — security matters, humanitarian missions, immigration and refugee issues — where any one initiative at the U.N. might meet with opposition from different member states.”

Macaya added: “She’s someone who basically focuses on understanding the interests behind the positions and seeks to find creative solutions. She’s not theoretical.”

Yet Figueres’s chances of leading the U.N. seem relatively slim at this point.

“It’s such a fluctuating process,” Macaya said. “One veto can essentially kick someone out, and then someone else might become the favorite. It’s an open process. She’s in the game, and she’s competing.”

Whoever becomes the next U.N. secretary-general will have to face the perennial issue of who has veto power at the 15-member UN Security Council — a privilege now enjoyed only by the council’s five permanent members: China, France, Great Britain, Russia and the United States. Over time, other countries have protested the inherent unfairness of this system, with pressure mounting to include emerging powers such as Brazil and India, as well as economically powerful nations like Germany and Japan.

“Changing the composition of the UN Security Council is just about as difficult as changing the U.S. constitution,” Clark conceded. “I think it’s critical that the Security Council reflects the world as it is today, rather than as it was in 1945. This really is a pressing issue, and I encourage diplomats to address it.”

Regardless of who wins, the next U.N. chief must make stopping mass atrocities and genocide a priority, said Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at Washington’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

She said Ban Ki-moon’s tenure as U.N. secretary-general “will always be marred by the fact that the Sri Lankan crisis unfolded” on his watch — a reference to the mass atrocities committed in 2009, during the final stages of a 30-year civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tiger rebels.

“Kofi Annan had to deal with the horrors of Rwanda and Srebrenica. We can’t have more Rwandas and Srebrenicas,” she said. “The next secretary-general has to recognize that the credibility of their institution is predicated on the ability to prevent crimes from happening before they unfold.”

Kikoler, who also praised Ban for launching an initiative known as Human Rights Up Front, urged his replacement to “make a very symbolic step” in the first 100 days by personally meeting with Syrian refugees on the Turkish or Jordanian border — and by fearlessly condemning human rights atrocities committed by Syria’s Assad regime.

“The next secretary-general should be a voice for the voiceless, for people who are unable to protect themselves,” she told The Diplomat. “Many of these candidates know intimately what it means to have mass atrocities unfold on their own borders. I hope that means they will be champions for human rights. It’s almost like member states have [previously] agreed to the lowest common denominator. At this moment, what we need is someone who’s going to be a real leader.”

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