Antonio Guterres will succeed Ban Ki-moon as the ninth secretary general of the United Nations. Guterres is by all accounts a good choice: a former prime minister of Portugal, he has a reputation for tackling and resolving tough problems. Guterres, however, lacks one qualification that was thought to be critical to the selection of the next U.N. secretary general: He is not a woman. It was widely believed that the next holder of that office would be a woman and the failure to follow through on that expectation is a reminder of the flaws in that selection process and the glass ceiling that more than half the world’s population continues to confront.
There have been eight secretary generals in the history of the U.N. Guterres is the first to have been chief executive in his own country, serving as prime minister from 1995 to 2002. For the last decade, he has served as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, one of the organization’s most visible and high-pressure jobs, one that also familiarized him with some of the world’s most pressing crises. During his tenure he was applauded for reorganizing the office, cutting spending and staff by half at the head office while maintaining the capacity to deal with an ever expanding refugee crisis.
He is considered to be “a diplomat’s diplomat,” able to speak four languages and ready to challenge those who oppose his work. Britain’s U.N. ambassador called him “the strongest person in this field,” while the U.S. ambassador said that he has “experience, vision and versatility across a range of areas.”
Those two opinions — that of the United States and the United Kingdom along with those of the governments of China, France and Russia — matter most in the selection process. That is because the secretary general is actually picked by the five permanent members of the Security Council (the P5), who first find someone that all agree upon — or, perhaps more accurately, one that none of them feel obliged to veto — who they then present to the other members of the Security Council and the remaining members of the organization.
Opaque and utterly undemocratic, this process is another example of the biases built into the institutions of international order constructed in the aftermath of World War II, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These informal processes and norms rightfully generate complaints about a system that is unrepresentative of today’s world.
Cognizant of the validity of that charge, there were efforts this year to make the selection process more transparent. For the first time, the candidates participated in public debates at which they had to identify their vision and priorities. There were informal debates within the U.N. itself, and straw polls of the Security Council, the results of which were made public.
Ultimately, however, the P5 announced their “clear favorite” — Guterres — and that was that. Having come out on top in all six of the straw polls, his selection was no surprise. It was no less a disappointment, however.
There was an expectation that it was time for a woman to take the head office on the 38th floor. A little more than a third of the U.N. staff are women, but just 17 of 79 under-secretaries-general are female. After seven decades, many observers — along with people who work for, with and in the U.N. — agreed with Ban that it was “high time” for a woman to be secretary general. Since seven of the 13 candidates for the job this time were women, the odds looked good for a female to succeed.
Nevertheless, Guterres prevailed, and while some of the women candidates acknowledged that he was a great pick, disappointment and anger was also evident. The head of Women SG, a lobbying group founded in 2015 to push for a female secretary general, called the decision “a horrendous, tragic, missed opportunity.” The Campaign to Elect a Woman U.N. Secretary-General called the decision an “outrage” and charged that the seven female candidates “were never seriously considered.” One of the seven, Susana Malcorra, Argentina’s foreign minister, complained that women did not have a chance in the Security Council, complaining that they faced “not a glass ceiling,” but “a steel ceiling.”
Some thought that rather than the “glass ceiling,” a “glass cliff” was both more appropriate and a source of hope for women candidates. According to this theory, women are more likely to win positions in which the prospects for success are low and the situation is bad. In another words, when failure is likely.
That is, in many ways, an apt description of the U.N. secretary general’s job. That person is more secretary than general. He has no authority other than that delegated by the Security Council and they — meaning the P5 each of which has a veto — are inclined to deal with all crises they think they can handle. Only the last, most hopeless situations are dumped in the lap of the U.N.
It is nevertheless a high visibility post, one with great potential despite its limits. Most important, a woman in this office would set an example and prove inspiration for women around the world. The P5’s failure to acknowledge this simple reality is reason enough to reform the selection process for the U.N.’s top post.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.