Campaigning for a Woman UN Secretary-General: A Conversation With Shazia Rafi

I spoke with Shazia Rafi of the The Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General, about the selection of a woman Secretary-General to take over for Ban Ki Moon. Below is the interview, originally published at the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs on 16 May.

Before joining The Campaign Rafi served as Secretary-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action, a nonprofit organization of elected legislators in over 140 countries that works to promote peace, democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and gender equality. Rafi is a 1983 graduate of The Fletcher School.

Michael Caster: The previous process for selecting a Secretary-General came under criticism for a lack of transparency in how the Security Council made a decision in private and forwarded a single recommendation to the General Assembly for approval. How transparent do you expect the new process to be? Will it still defer to the same power players even if it’s done more in the open?

RAFI: There is a reality in the world now: everybody is constantly on social media, everyone is a known category, there are no hidden players anymore and everything else is taking place in a sort of fishbowl.

So when it comes to the UN Secretary-General, it has been the only one out of every inter-governmental institution where there haven’t been open candidates campaigning. The change to a more open process was long overdue. The push has come from everybody. Even the P5 have become increasingly uncomfortable with their role as the ones producing the candidates.

The player who has played quite a role in making this transparent has been the president of the General Assembly, former speaker of the Danish parliament [Mogens Lykketoft]. He wanted to give the General Assembly more power under something called the Revitalization of the General Assembly, a sort of rebalance of the UN power system.

He took the reins in both hands and insisted on holding hearings in April 2016 in which the candidates were forced to send in their nominations with their written vision statements and had to come to a meeting with members of the General Assembly.

I don’t know how transparent it really is. While Member States could ask questions from the floor, civil society managed was forced to put questions prerecorded by people they had preselected and it wasn’t clear half the time who these people were. I wasn’t too pleased with that because those of us with civil society are capable of asking from the floor as well. Also, each male candidate had two questions from civil society; each female candidate had three. This difference in treatment didn’t make any sense.

The decision will still be made by the Security Council and they haven’t set themselves a hard deadline. There’s a soft deadline, that by July they hope to open all dossiers that have been received, which means that those who want to be Secretary-General of the UN should have indicated their interest by July.

MC: What happens in September?

RAFI: The process itself is going to take a few months. Their deliberations will start in July, which is when Japan is president of the Security Council.

Then it goes back to the same process as has been previously used. The Security Council will do their internal straw polls as always. The P5 have different color coded-cards from the E10 [elected members of the Security Council] to indicate “encourage,” “discourage,” and “no opinion.”

The winning candidate has to have at least no “discourage” votes from the P5 meaning that they have not vetoed the final candidate. They need four to five of the rest because it still has to be a majority of the Council that agrees with the candidate and sends that name to the General Assembly. Even though there’s a push to try and get two names, so far the Council has said they will send one name.

New Zealand has the presidency of the Security Council in September and then Russia in October. Russians want to see the decision done in October.

MC: With Ban Ki-moon’s selection, when it was Asia’s turn in the regional rotation, most of the negotiations took place between the United States and China. Now with Eastern Europe under review, is it likely to boil down to negotiations between the U.S. and Russia?

RAFI: The region that is up this time is the Western European and Others Group (WEOG), but within that Eastern Europe has never had a Secretary-General. They have made it very clear that this time it’s their turn, which is why you see so many Eastern Europeans among the candidates.

Yes, this time it will be between the U.S. and Russia. I would not read too much into [the current Russia-U.S. relationship in terms of how much it will affect the process]. Countries are capable of having different compartments for their dialogues with each other. So they may not be on good terms related to some part of the world in which they are clashing right now but there are other things they can talk to each other about. These negotiations are a lot about, “If I agree with you on X, what am I going to get on Y?”

MC: How much resistance would you expect from Russia if the regional rotation system were abandoned?

RAFI: I don’t know what the final position of the Russians will be but so far it is very clear that they are still pushing for it to continue to be an Eastern European. The problem with the Eastern Europe group is that unlike the African Union Group or the Asian Group they are a region that is both within the European Union and not, which confuses the matter for the Russians. They may cherry-pick within the Eastern European region which countries they are willing to go for and which countries they are not. I think there’s a lot of fine negotiation that will take place on that basis.

MC: What about the so-called Group of Four (G4)? How have Brazil, India, Germany, and Japan weighed in on the process as part of Security Council reform and other structural issues in the UN?

RAFI: If you listen to the hearings, the question did come from the G4 to every candidate as to whether the candidates were willing to take up Security Council reform, which has kind of been a dead elephant. Candidates were very cagey, all of them, in terms of answering this one because obviously none of the P5 want to give up their power. This is unlikely to go very far.

MC: Your organization has held events and done a lot of advocacy. What have been some of the most valuable or results-oriented activities so far?

RAFI: I think the most important thing that we’ve achieved is that when we started out last year in the spring people were still referring to the next Secretary-General as he and then they started saying he or she and now they are saying she or he. So there is quite an expectation that, all things being equal, the Council will go for a woman. And we intend to continue to push that.

MC: Women in positions of power, either in the private sector or in political roles, are generally burdened with gendered double standards in which the same qualities that are seen as positive attributes in their male colleagues earn them negative perceptions and scorn. How do you see this playing out with a female head of the United Nations?

RAFI: These negative perceptions are the hurdles that we have. If we are strong, we are seen as, pardon me, bitches. If we are not, we are seen as too weak. I think this race is one where the women who are currently going for the job are already at the head of the agencies, foreign ministries, or whatever. They’ve already crossed certain parts of these burdens where their mettle has been tested. The issue here is going to be much more for Member States as to whether they can cross that mental hurdle when finally there are two candidates at the end that meet all criteria. Can they bring themselves to say this time they will weigh in favor of the woman? Because in an institution that’s never had a woman in the job you need that mindset.

It doesn’t mean the woman is less qualified. It means you have to cross that hurdle in an affirmative action mindset as an institution. And that requires a cross-regional coalition. Now there is a coalition of 56 countries, lead by Columbia, that is a General Assembly group of friends in favor of a woman Secretary-General. Some of them are from the Council but none of the P5 are members because they don’t want to commit one way or another yet.

If it turns out that the final short list is a woman and a man, then it will require that gentle push, and our organization intends to push.

MC: What do you think about the influence of having a woman as the Secretary-General on global gender inequality and women’s rights?

RAFI: The UN is the global institution of peace and security and the bulk of the victims of peace and security are women and children. Women are not a minority. They are almost 51 percent of the world’s population. If you adjust for the fact that China and India take steps to mess with the natural gender balance by aborting female fetuses, the majority of the world’s population is women. They are not reflected in economics. They are not reflected in the positions of power in the same way. But having this job in the hands of a woman I think would be a very strong message to the rest of the world.

MC: There are quite a few countries that have demonstrated their lack of willingness to address discrimination against women. Do you anticipate pushback from countries with bad records on women’s rights?

RAFI: No, I don’t think this will be reflected. For example, the United States is one country that has not ratified Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It’s the only Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development country that hasn’t. I don’t think that will affect the U.S. vote. The two are not connected. This is part of their diplomacy, not part of what they do in their own countries.

MC: In terms of the escalating challenges that will confront the UN in the future, what would you like to see as the priority for the new Secretary-General?

RAFI: I want to see preventive peace making as the focus of the UN. That is an area which has been neglected in the past. I want to see the mediation role of the UN expanded because that is where we should have been putting our efforts and our funds and our best people in all of these crises that we are now scrambling to deal with.

MC: Do you have any advice for people at Fletcher who want to get involved at any level of this campaign?

RAFI: Fletcher is a leading think tank on a global basis. It’s also one that has enormous connections within the U.S. administration, State Department, and President’s office. There are Fletcher students in almost all the countries that are on the Security Council. I used the Fletcher directory when I was working in every country around the world. It led me to the right people. I think you have within both your current student body and within the alumni people who can be very influential on their government’s decisions on this. I would particularly say the ones from the countries on the Security Council should push in whatever interaction they have for there to be transparency in the process, even within the Security Council, and I would like them to push for there to be a woman.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

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