Give the U.N.'s Reins to a Woman

From left, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, former president of the Philippine Senate Leticia Shahani, and Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand -- all possible candidates for the job of U.N. secretary general.
From left, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, President Tarja Halonen of Finland, former president of the Philippine Senate Leticia Shahani, and Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand -- all possible candidates for the job of U.N. secretary general. (Sergei Grits - AP)

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By Jessica Neuwirth
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The United Nations is lagging. The premier world organization is still missing the point that many have grasped in countries such as Germany, Jamaica, Liberia, Chile and New Zealand: that women, too, can serve as leaders at the highest level.

In the 60 years since the United Nations was founded, no woman has served as secretary general. And despite the body's stated goal of achieving gender parity within the system by the year 2000, women remain grossly underrepresented. The numbers are embarrassing: Only 16 percent of undersecretaries general are women.

In 1995, at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, governments called for the development of "mechanisms to nominate women candidates for appointment to senior posts in the United Nations." More than 10 years later, no such mechanism has been developed for nomination to the most senior post.

Cloaked in secrecy and devoid of formal procedure, the selection process does a great disservice to any notion of transparency or democracy. To be successful a candidate must secure a majority vote of the Security Council and avoid a veto by any of the five permanent members. Consequently, aspirants focus primarily on winning the favor of the so-called P5: China, France, Russia, Britain and the United States.

Who the candidates are is often as much of a mystery as how they are considered, a subject of intrigue and much speculation by the media. This process works to keep many qualified candidates -- and especially qualified women -- from getting due consideration.

Women with the qualifications for the post abound. Among those serving at the level of undersecretary general or at the highest level of national government are U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, Prime Minister Helen Clark of New Zealand, President Tarja Halonen of Finland and President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia (who has expressed interest in the secretary general post). After serving as prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland held the post of director general of the World Health Organization. Currently a judge on the International Criminal Court, Navanethem Pillay served previously for four years as president of the U.N. Rwanda Tribunal.

It is understood that a secretary general should not be the national of any permanent member of the Security Council and that there should be regional rotation of the post. There is a general feeling that it is now Asia's "turn," but with some calling for an Eastern European choice. Although no woman has ever held the post, the idea of a woman's "turn" has not yet taken hold.

There are many qualified Asian women, although none seems to be on the current list of candidates. Sadako Ogata, from Japan, served as U.N. high commissioner for many years. Nafis Sadik of Pakistan served as executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. Anson Chan served with distinction as head of Hong Kong's civil service. Leticia Shahani was president of the Philippine Senate, as well as a U.N. assistant secretary general. There are women qualified for the post. The Security Council has only to look for them.

Speaking last week on International Women's Day, Secretary General Kofi Annan noted that the role of women in decision making is "central to the advancement of women around the world, and to the progress of humankind as a whole," and expressed his view that "the world is ready for a woman secretary general." The secretary general is right -- we are ready and waiting.

Unfortunately, his bold statement is not matched by his record. Since 2004 there has been a decrease in the percentage of women serving at the management level of his staff. He has just replaced the first female deputy secretary general with a man, and there are no women among the candidates on his short list for executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a critical role in the early years of the United Nations, reminded us that universal human rights begin in small places, close to home, in this case the halls of the United Nations. She said, "Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere."

Women's unequal access to positions of power in the United Nations hinders progress toward all the organization's goals, including equality, development and peace. The Security Council should take Mrs. Roosevelt's wise words "close to home" in choosing the next secretary general. It's time for a woman.

Jessica Neuwirth is president of Equality Now, an international women's rights organization.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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