Turtle Bay

Did Ban just hire the first female Secretary General?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today wrapped up a long campaign to recruit former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet into the U.N. system, announcing today that he had hired her to run a new U.N. entity to promote women’s equality. The question is: Why did she take the job? For months, Bachelet had indicated that she was ...

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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today wrapped up a long campaign to recruit former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet into the U.N. system, announcing today that he had hired her to run a new U.N. entity to promote women’s equality. The question is: Why did she take the job?

For months, Bachelet had indicated that she was not interested in the post and was holding out for something better, perhaps the head of an existing U.N. agency, according to senior officials familiar with her deliberations. Her decision to take the women’s equality post is fueling speculation among U.N. diplomats that she may be positioning herself for another top U.N. job, and perhaps even a run for secretary-general after Ban retires.

Bachelet joins another top female official, Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand who now heads the U.N. Development Program, as rumored female candidates for the international body’s top post. In 2005, the women’s rights group Equality Now floated the names of 18 potential women candidates for the top U.N. job, including Bachelet and Clark.

Mona Juul, a Norwegian diplomat who last year wrote a famous leaked memo criticizing Ban’s leadership of the United Nations, suggested that Clark could plausibly mount a direct challenge against Ban for the top U.N. post — not least because her home country, New Zealand, is politically aligned with the West but geographically located in Asia.

“She has in her short time on the job shown promise,” Juul wrote in the memo. “It will be interesting to follow if she is given room to distinguish the U.N.’s development side. As a woman from that part of the world, Clark could quickly become a competitor for Ban’s second [term].”

But the obstacles to potential Clark and Bachelet candidacies are considerable.

The post of U.N. secretary-general is generally rotated among candidates from each of the U.N.’s regional groups, with each serving up to two five-year terms. Under current practice, Ban is expected to be offered a second term when his first term ends in December 2011. And even if Ban doesn’t stand for a second term, U.N. officials say it is unlikely that China, which holds veto power, would accept a candidate considered “Western,” even if her government is located in Asia.

The U.N.’s so-called Western and Others Group (WEOG), which has not held the post since the early 1980s, would next be eligible to designate a candidate for the top post in 2016. That would put Clark, whose country is a member of WEOG, in a position to run. Latin America then comes next, so Bachelet would not have a shot at running for the top job until 2026, when she turns 75.

But calls for breaking the rotational system — which has never been formalized — have been strengthening, motivated in part by the fact that women have yet to hold the job. There have also been calls for bypassing the West since it has already had three secretary-generals, more than any other region. Latin America has only had one; and Eastern Europe has never had a secretary-general. Vaira Viek-Freiberg, the former Latvian president, ran for secretary-general in 2006, but she was unable to overcome Russian opposition.

“In the sixty years since the United Nations was founded, no woman has ever been elected to serve as Secretary-General, despite the fact that there are many qualified candidates,” Equality Now wrote in its 2005 statement calling for the selection of a female secretary general.

In the meantime, Bachelet will take charge of a newly created organization — called the U.N. Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women — that merges four U.N. agencies and offices: The U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues, and the U.N. International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women(U.N.-INSTRAW). “Former President Michelle Bachelet will bring a wealth of experience, global leadership, and global stature, in first of all establishing this new U.N. women entity,” Ban said in announcing Bachelet’s appointment.

The announcement was received with enthusiasm from U.S. diplomats and non-profit groups, who say it is the most impressive appointment since Ban selected former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark. “We are psyched. Really,” Marianne Mollman, who tracked the selection process for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email. “This is a GREAT hire.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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