U.N.’s ‘Steel Ceiling’ Blocks First Woman Secretary-General
Former refugees High Commissioner António Guterres is a bittersweet pick for the United Nations’ next chief.
António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who is all but certain to become the next U.N. secretary-general, was welcomed by U.N. insiders with a degree of elation not seen since one of their own, Kofi Annan, rose through the ranks to become the world's top diplomat. Like Annan, Guterres has charisma to spare and deep experience in U.N. matters, having served as the head of the organization’s refugee agency (UNHCR) for a decade.
António Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who is all but certain to become the next U.N. secretary-general, was welcomed by U.N. insiders with a degree of elation not seen since one of their own, Kofi Annan, rose through the ranks to become the world’s top diplomat. Like Annan, Guterres has charisma to spare and deep experience in U.N. matters, having served as the head of the organization’s refugee agency (UNHCR) for a decade.
But his victory was bittersweet for many in the U.N. bubble, who had held out hopes that 2016 would see the first woman elected to be secretary-general. The slate of hopefuls for the top spot included seven women with impressive resumes, including at least one former prime minister, several foreign ministers, and various top U.N. officials.
“We thought the U.N. could reform and move into the 21st century with gender equality. But they are still making backroom deals among the old boys club,” said Jean Krasno, a lecturer on international affairs at the City College of New York and chair of the Campaign to Elect a Woman U.N. Secretary-General.
“Fourteen men on the Security Council, and one woman, Samantha Power, just couldn’t envision a woman at the top,” she said.
As the former high commissioner for refugees, Guterres, 67, brings extensive experience in managing refugee crises at a time when the world is confronting the largest human migration since World War II. He has also succeeded in pulling off a deft diplomatic maneuver by uniting the world’s big powers at a time when they have been torn apart by frontal collisions in Ukraine and Syria.
In the early days of the campaign, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorra, Washington’s presumed favorite, looked to be clear front-runners. But they stumbled in early straw polls. Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, and a Russian favorite, fared better, but she could never overcome opposition from key Western powers. In the end, the Bulgarian government cut her loose to make way for another female hopeful, Kristalina Georgieva, a well-regarded Bulgarian economist and EU budget commissioner. But Georgieva, who entered the race this month, had too little time to build momentum for her campaign.
Last month, Malcorra expressed exasperation at a dinner in New York for female foreign ministers with what she saw as a process rigged to deny women a shot at the top job. Malcorra complained that the Security Council is a “boys club,” according to a senior U.N.-based official. “‘You don’t have a chance if you’re a woman,’ she said. ‘It’s not a glass ceiling; it’s a steel ceiling.’”
But after Wednesday’s straw poll, Malcorra joined Clark, Bokova, and other candidates on Twitter in congratulating Guterres. “More than confident that he will be an excellent #NextSG,” Bokova tweeted.
Indeed, in the final tally male candidates captured the top three spots, with Guterres gaining 13 votes in favor of his bid, including all five permanent members of the Security Council, with two council members expressing no opinion. Former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic and Miroslav Lacjak, the foreign minister of Slovakia, finished second and third, respectively, but, facing likely vetoes, neither had much chance of making it to the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the iconic U.N. building.
“It’s fair to say the argument ‘we need a woman’ never gained traction in the Security Council,” Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein’s U.N. ambassador, told Foreign Policy. “I think they just didn’t care.”
Cheering the outcome of the race, Matthew Rycroft, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, paid tribute to the seven women who made up just over half of the 13 candidates.
“I’m very glad that a majority of candidates in this race were women,” he said. “I was clear all along that although it’s high time for a woman, other things being equal, nevertheless the most important thing for the U.K. was the qualities of leadership for this position, and I think it’s fair to say António Guterres has come through this new and improved and more transparent process at the top.”
Guterres emerged in the early stages of the campaign for secretary-general as the front-runner, and he maintained a clear edge through five informal straw polls. But there were persistent questions about whether Russia would drop its insistence that the next U.N. leader hail from an Eastern European country.
Russia’s ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, who serves as this month’s president of the Security Council, put those suspicious to rest Wednesday. “We have a clear favorite, and his name is António Guterres,” Churkin said.
With both Washington and Moscow rallying behind the former socialist politician and refugee chief, the selection of Guterres highlighted a rare show of unity between the two quarreling powers. It appears unlikely that the consensus around Guterres will translate into any real shift in the downward spiral in U.S. and Russian relations or lead to an end to the Syrian civil war.
But it does set the stage for the emergence of a new U.N. leader who enjoys the trust of the pivotal powers, including China, Britain, and France, in addition to the Cold War foes. And it shows that despite their differences, the United States and Russia can still find areas of agreement.
“This was an impressive display of unity from the Security Council after a historically open process with an extremely robust pool of candidates, including several strong women.… For the Council to come together to nominate a candidate who has a track record of such forceful leadership on critical global issues is a sign that expectations for UN leadership are high,” said Elizabeth Cousens, a former top U.S. official at the U.N. who is now deputy CEO of the U.N. Foundation.
Churkin emerged from the meeting to address the press flanked by other council ambassadors, including Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The council, he said, would hold a formal vote Thursday and that he hoped Guterres would be elected by acclamation. If, as expected, the council selects Guterres, it will send a resolution to the 193-member General Assembly to approve the selection.
After the poll, Power told reporters that the selection of Guterres proved “remarkably uncontentious, uncontroversial.”
“I think that speaks to the fact that each of us … knows how fundamentally important this position is,” she added. “People united around a person who impressed throughout the process and has impressed on multiple axes: in his service, in Portuguese politics, and then of course at the helm of UNHCR.”
“Would it have been better if he had two X chromosomes?” asked one U.N. insider. “Perhaps.” But the insider still seemed impressed with the outcome.
Photo credit: EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/Getty Images
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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