Global Policy Forum

UN Needs Woman Chief to Clean It Up


By Georgie Anne Geyer

The Oregonian
September 24, 2006

Perhaps the idea came to me these past few days as I disbelievingly observed two "world leaders," the American and Iranian presidents, playing like spiteful boys in the great hall of the United Nations. They said everything to each other but, "Yeah, so's your old lady!" If MANkind is mad, then why not do something dramatic, perhaps even drastic, if we are all to survive? Why not put up a distinguished woman as secretary-general of the United Nations and see if she can avoid all the macho mischief men have excelled at for so many centuries? And I have an idea as to who it should be.

First, this idea is not so offbeat as it may seem, even though women are in general grossly underrepresented at the U.N.: only 16 percent of undersecretaries. Despite this, outgoing Secretary General Kofi Annan, who probably will leave in December when his replacement is chosen, spoke recently with unmistakable intent, saying of his successor: "I hope she will be determined to build on what we have achieved . . . and I hope she will be more successful than I have been. . . ."

The daring idea of a woman secretary-general for the world body at this time of its greatest trials, facing the urgent need for reform, for transparency and for workable new ideas about peacekeeping in the world (and for better relations with the U.S.) has been floating in -- but then out -- of conversations for weeks. Even the fearsome John Bolton, the outspoken anti-U.N. American ambassador, asked recently: "If you think geographical rotation is a principle . . . then what about other kinds of rotation? How about gender rotation? There has never been a female secretary-general in 60 years. Let us see who's out there."

Well, compared even with 10 years ago, a virtual crowd of extraordinary women is "out there." Already the next president of the General Assembly is an experienced Bahraini diplomat, lawyer and women's rights advocate, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa. As for the secretary-generalship, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the president of Latvia, has already been formally proposed as a candidate by Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Yet, as Bolton correctly noted, the United Nations does have an unwritten but generally abided-by policy of rotation of the highest post by geography, and this year it is Asia's turn. But the two highest-ranking male candidates are far from perfect.

The first, the South Korean foreign secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, a front-runner, is the subject of critical whispers because of the way he kowtows to China, for instance, by not allowing the Dalai Lama to visit South Korea. The second front-runner, Surakiart Sathirathai of Thailand, the deputy prime minister, is almost surely out of the running because of the coup that has replaced his government.

But one candidate -- an elegant and serious woman with one of the most distinguished histories in Asia -- seems so perfect for this job, at this crucial time for the world, that, male or female, one could hardly find someone better. She is the present ambassador to Washington from Singapore, Chan Heng Chee, a Cornell alumnus (M.A. '68), former executive director of the Singapore International Foundation and former ambassador of her nation to the U.N.

But it gets even better.

In the unique and arcane world of the United Nations, with its incredible worldwide responsibilities (and personal resentments, and national piques and financial improprieties), the ambassador, who is of Chinese descent, comes from the nation that has set the standard for the extraordinary development of all its people, which has written and lived by the principles for anti-corruption and has even become the model for China's economic miracle. Her nation, virtually alone in Asia, is rated positively on what is called in development circles the "perception of corruption" index.

Sometime this fall, the 192 member states of the General Assembly will vote, but the actual decision will be made by the five permanent members of the Security Council -- the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and Russia -- for the secretary-general who will oversee the world at its worst time of trouble since the 1930s.

One can only wonder and perhaps dream: a respected woman from the Middle East at the head of the General Assembly and a distinguished woman from Asia as the secretary-general? Wouldn't that be interesting!

More Information on UN Reform
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More Information on Gender and Inequality


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