The United Nations (UN) Security Council is considering candidates for the next UN secretary-general. The selection process for the post has been the most transparent and accessible so far. But the decision to appoint the secretary essentially rests with the security council’s five permanent members in what has been, since 1946, a remarkably secretive selection procedure, one which has given us three Europeans, two Africans, two Asians and one Latin American — all men. This process has never produced a female secretary general.
The absurd male monopoly on the UN’s top job must come to an end. The next secretary-general should be both a woman and a feminist, with the determination and leadership to promote women’s rights and gender equality. Growing up as an activist under an oppressive dictatorship in Uganda, the UN was a friend to those of us who fought our way to freedom, as it was for the millions that joined decolonisation struggles in the African continent. Today, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris climate agreement of 2015 are testament to the UN’s global role and reach.
Yet the UN is failing to meet its founding tenets to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war” and uphold human rights for the powerless. The pledge to “leave no one behind” is perhaps the UN’s biggest political challenge. The new secretary-general must grapple with the spiraling crisis of extreme economic inequality that keeps people poor, undermines economic growth and threatens the health of democracies.
Choosing a woman goes far beyond symbolism and political correctness. The discrimination against women and girls goes to the core of all analyses of the world’s economic, political and environmental problems. A feminist woman secretary-general will, by definition and action, ensure that gender equality is put at the heart of peace, security and development. In doing so, she will truly champion the UN’s core values of human rights, equality and justice.
Such an appointment — far too long in coming — would fulfill promises given by world leaders 21 years ago at the historic UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing to nominate more women to senior UN posts. In the past decade, women have filled less than a quarter of senior roles at the organisation. A feminist UN secretary general will ensure that more women serve as heads of the UN agencies, peacekeeping missions, diplomatic envoys, and senior mediators who can, collectively, strengthen the global peace and security agenda. Without women getting equal access to positions of decision-making, gender equality, global security and peace will never be realised.
It will take a woman feminist secretary-general to advance the women’s rights agenda in intergovernmental fora that is needed to address the multiple and intertwined challenges facing us in the 21st century. Only a woman feminist secretary-general can ensure financial support reaches women’s rights movements. She should also boost international efforts to empower women economically — thus strengthening economies — and tackling the harmful social norms that trap women in poverty and powerlessness. The new secretary-general must also re-imagine the role of the UN in a world radically different to the one it was set up in and be bold in leading its reform.
The UN must be made more inclusive, accountable, democratic, effective, and reflective of a world in which political and economic power has shifted. It must be able to protect its unique role as a genuinely multilateral institution that acts in the interests of all people and countries. Its integrity must not be undermined by the influence of private sector actors. The security council, particularly the five permanent members, must choose change and progress over continuity. They must have the foresight to ensure they listen to the voices of the public and select the secretary-general that the world and the UN needs today: A woman and a feminist.