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A look at the four women vying for the UN’s top spot

AFP | Clockwise from top left: UNESCO chief Irina Bokova, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, and the former foreign ministers of Moldova, Natalia Gherman, and Croatia, Vesna Pusic. and former Croatian FM

Eight candidates make their pitches this week in the race to succeed UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose second term ends on December 31. We take a look at the four candidates bidding to become the United Nations’ first female chief.


The UN General Assembly began the first-ever hearings of candidates this week, marking a mini-revolution in the process leading to the appointment of the world's top diplomat. For decades successive secretary-generals have been essentially hand-picked during closed-door meetings involving the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (US, China, Russia, UK and France). Now all 193 member states are given a chance to grill candidates on a range of issues – though the Security Council will still have the final say.

The presence of four women among the eight contenders is another breath of fresh air for the global behemoth that employs 40,000-plus staff with a budget of $10 billion. The UN has had eight secretary-generals since it was founded in 1945, all of them men. This year’s female candidates include a former prime minister and three former foreign ministers, one of which is the current head of UNESCO, the UN’s education, science and culture branch. The informal practice of regional rotation explains why three of them hail from Eastern Europe, which has never before supplied a UN secretary-general.

  • Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO

At 63, Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova is already a trailblazer, having become UNESCO’s first female chief in 2009 after a distinguished career in her country’s diplomatic corps. A graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, Bokova is seen by many as pro-Russian. Her father was editor of the Bulgarian communist party newspaper during the Soviet era. She joined her country’s Foreign Ministry in 1977, working at the UN department. Bokova’s long list of appointments includes stints as Bulgarian foreign minister and ambassador to France, Monaco and UNESCO. Her mandate at the helm of the UN’s cultural agency was marked by the successful Palestinian membership bid in 2011, which led to a cutoff of US funding. Bokova speaks English, French, Russian and Spanish.

  • Croatia’s Vesna Pusic, former foreign minister

Like Irina Bokova, Croatia’s Vesna Pusic is bidding for two firsts: becoming the UN’s first secretary-general from Eastern Europe, and the first woman too. As her country’s foreign minister, a post she held for five years until January, Vesna Pusic oversaw its entry into the European Union in 2013. She has since been appointed deputy speaker of the Croatian parliament. The 62-year-old sociologist is also president of the liberal-democrat Croatian People’s Party (centre-left). Fluent in English and German, she is perhaps best known for her outspoken support for gender equality and LGBT rights.

  • Moldova’s Natalia Gherman, former foreign minister

The third candidate from Eastern Europe, Moldova’s Natalia Gherman is hoping the UN’s informal practice of regional rotation will strengthen her bid (her region having never supplied a secretary-general). The 47-year-old is the daughter of independent Moldova’s first president, Mircea Snegur. A graduate of King’s College London, she has served as Moldova’s ambassador to Austria, Sweden, Norway and Finland. As her country’s foreign minister from 2013 until January this year, Gherman led negotiations with the European Union on association and trade. She speaks English, Russian and German.

  • New Zealand’s Helen Clark, former prime minister

Helen Clark’s career in politics began in the early 1970s with her staunch opposition to New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War. A long-time member of the Labour Party, she is also one of the country’s longest-serving prime ministers, having led the government for three successive terms from 1999 to 2008. Clark, 66, has been at the helm of the UN Development Progamme since 2009, making her the highest-ranking woman at the United Nations. On paper, the New Zealander ranks among the favourites to succeed Ban Ki-moon, though some diplomats say she may appear too “Western” to command broad support in the global diplomatic community.

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