Opinion: How Eastern Europe’s Right Deprived the World from Its First Female UN Secretary-General

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Written by Joël Ruet

As a Western European male and a Socialist, I should incidentally be very pleased with the election of Antonio Guterres as the next UN Secretary-General. After all Mr. Guterres is a seasoned diplomat, who masters several languages, and was able to gain the support of all the Security Councilmembers , not a benign result at times when some commentators are talking of a new cold war. Hence, my full-hearted congratulations!

But, just as “cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British” (thus wrote the post-modernist Ashis Nandy, from Columbia University), it is more relevant to analyse the election from the consciously acquired, diligently nurtured, perspective of a gender-friendly, universalist, world citizen rather than that of the accidental male I am. Before moving ahead fully supporting the new leader, one has to plainly understand why the UNSC chose Guterres, shifting away from most commentators’ predictions; that this is the time for a woman from Eastern Europe to become the next UNSG.

Was this combination ever even possible? According to some, maybe not. The reality though is much more complicated and both the murky role of right-wing Europe as well as the lack of judgement from Bulgaria’s Premier paint a grim picture of Europe’s political dynamism and credibility.

Let me start with an implicit, unwritten, but well respected—until this time—rule with regard to the UNSG position: the equitable geographical representation of UN Secretary-Generals. This time was definitely the turn of Eastern Europe, a region that has never had a Secretary-General, but which has come a long way since. A key parameter for the UNSG election is to put forward candidates who won’t antagonize the veto-bearing Security Council members. In that respect, the two leading Eastern European male candidates (Jeremić and Lajčák), had no real chance because they were actively championed by Russia and thus they were destined to receive a US veto. It is telling and indicative of the region’s lack of understanding of UN Security Council practices, that Eastern European countries haven’t been able to convince Russia to support a credible candidate. It is also very revealing of the current deep divide between Europe and Russia.

However, the situation was fundamentally different with Bulgaria’s candidate, Irina Bokova: although acceptable, she was never championed by Russia, despite a negative campaign driven by her own country’s Prime Minister, Borissov, who tried to portray her as Putin’s candidate and therefore as unacceptable for the US. What is striking is that Bokova has long enjoyed strong support from the US (and Israel) at UNESCO and was twice elected as Director General with the full support of all P5 members. Sofia’s efforts to actively undermine Bokova’s chances throughout her campaign culminated in them nominating Kristalina Georgieva as the second Bulgarian UNSG candidate a week before a crucial straw poll, despite knowing from the very beginning that she had no chance to succeed. Backed by the extreme right-wing Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, Georgieva angered many in Europe and internationally, including the G77 who protested about her last minute nomination. Bulgaria’s suicidal behaviour though was very much supported by the European People’s Party (EPP)—Georgieva’s and Borissov’s EU party—who hoped for a conservative European candidate, not a Socialist. They actively lobbied on behalf of Georgieva while at the same time undermining the candidacy of the only Eastern European woman who stood a chance, Irina Bokova.

Another key element of this UNSG election process was the mounting pressure from civil society to have a woman elected as the next UNSG. Women have a remarkable track record as Heads of UN Agencies, notably Bokova at the UNESCO, Figueres at the UNFCCC and Clark at UNDP. The Obama administration openly supported the idea of having the first female UNSG. However, it is clear that bad habits die hard and the boys’ club at the UN (there are 14 men out of 15 ambassadors/MFA/heads of government at the UNSC) just voted yet again for a man.

Despite great hope that after 70 years of male domination we could see a woman at the helm of the UN, now that ship has sailed. However, Guterres has the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to greater gender equality at the UN by appointing a female Deputy Secretary-General ideally coming from Eastern Europe. The world is changing and the UN has to change too.