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IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse

Gender Equality “Clear Priority” for New UN Secretary-General

António Guterres takes the oath of office for his five-year term as UN Secretary-General. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 13 2016 (IPS) - Achieving gender equality in UN staff appointments will be a “clear priority” for incoming UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, when he takes up the UN’s top administrative role in January 2017.

Guterres who was sworn in as Secretary-General at a ceremony at UN Headquarters on Monday, said that achieving gender parity among UN staff will will form an important part of his agenda for his first 100 days in office.

“In the appointments I’ll be making – and the first ones will be announced soon – you will see that gender parity will become a clear priority from top to bottom in the UN,” Guterres told journalists after the ceremony.

Guterres was selected as UN Secretary-General by the 15 members of the UN Security Council in October.

His selection upset campaigners, and many within the UN, who had hoped that the successor to Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s eighth Secretary General, would be the first woman to lead the international organisation in its more than 70 years.

However UN member states proved unready to seriously consider a woman for the role, with several highly qualified female candidates failing to perform well in successive UN Security Council votes.

Guterres, like many of his rivals, campaigned on a platform of gender equality, and is keen to show that despite his own gender he is committed to promoting women within the UN system.

He noted that the first target to achieve gender equality within the UN had been set as the year 2000 and that the new target year of 2030 was too far off.

“The UN set itself a goal of reaching gender parity by 2000,” Anne Marie Goetz, Professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University told IPS. “It set that goal in 1993. 23 years later and progress in reaching the goal has been pathetic, faltering, and sometimes flatlining.”

Despite commitments from current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, senior appointments in 2015 and 2016 have repeatedly gone to male candidates.

“While gender, geographic and other forms of diversity are incredibly important, merit should be the primary consideration for every appointment,” -- Natalie Samarasinghe

However while Guterres will bear the responsibility for making numerous high level UN appointments, Goetz noted that UN member states also bear responsibility for the lack of women in high-level positions at the UN.

“The Secretary-General relies on Member States to supply suggestions about qualified candidates for these high profile roles,” said Goetz, who is also a member of the Campaign to Elect a Woman Secretary-General.

According to various media reports, one of Guterres’ first appointments is expected to be Nigerian Minister of the Environment, Amina Mohammed as Deputy Secretary-General.

“Ms Mohammed’s appointment is an excellent choice but not a specific gain for gender equality at the UN as the Deputy position has been held by women before,” said Goetz.

Unlike the position of UN Secretary-General the position of Deputy Secretary-General has been previously held by two women.

However Goetz noted that this role has been more likely to be given to women, not only because it is not selected directly by UN member states, but also because “women are much more commonly found in the deputy or second rank position than they are at the very apex of power.”

Meanwhile, Guterres also noted that the same concerns with gender representation also applied to regional diversity in UN senior appointments.

However, pressures from powerful UN member states to appoint their own candidates to high level positions should not overcome the need for high calibre candidates, Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director of the United Nations Association UK told IPS.

“While gender, geographic and other forms of diversity are incredibly important, merit should be the primary consideration for every appointment,” said Samarasinghe who also represents the 1 for 7 Billion campaign which has pushed for a more open and transparent process for the selection of the UN Secretary-General.

“Several General Assembly resolutions make clear that there should be no monopoly on senior posts by any state or group of states,” said Samarasinghe.

“States – especially those that feel entitled to certain jobs – should field high calibre candidates. They should not try to foist failed or inconvenient politicians onto the UN.”

However despite the General Assembly resolutions, certain top UN roles are usually taken up by nationals of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

For example, the current head of UN Peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous is a national of France. Rumours are circulating, that China, which has recently increased its own involvement in UN peacekeeping, may have its eye on this role from 2017.

Meanwhile, recent media reports have suggested that the UK’s David Milliband may be being put forward for the role of Administrator of the UN Development Program, currently held by former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark.

Milliband, who is currently head of the International Rescue Committee, may have appropriate qualifications for the role, however this would mean that the UN’s top development body would again be led by an administrator from a developed country.

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