The UN Secretary General That Never Was

On Thursday the 6th of October, one of the supposedly most powerful positions in the world was filled: with Ban Ki-Moon’s mandate ending in December, the United Nations’ top job, that of the Secretary General (SG), was selected. Antonio Guterres, ex-Portuguese Prime Minister (1995-2002) and ex-UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2005-2015) will, from January, be at its helm. For the ninth time in the UN’s 71 years, a man has been designated to serve as the head of an organization that prides itself in international cooperation, socio-economic development, and peaceful tolerance of each other. So why should we raise our eyebrows when the BBC only had Guterres’ designation as the fourth headline of the day, far behind Theresa May’s announcement of ‘hard Brexit’?

In the run-up to this UNSG selection, efforts were put in order to ensure a democratic and more transparent selection. Historically, the UNSG was selected behind closed doors by the Security Council, the most powerful UN decision-making body, consisting of fifteen members of which five hold permanent veto power (USA, UK, France, China, and Russia), who would then recommend said prospective UNSG to the General Assembly, where all UN members deliberate on the nomination. This selection was pitted as more transparent, as candidates were nominated by their respective states of origin to the Security Council, who then conducted various public straw polls in order to encourage, discourage, or “abstain” specific candidates. There was heavy emphasis for a successful first candidate from Central & Eastern Europe, but more importantly, there was a particularly heavy emphasis and drive for a woman to hold the post. In every election there is always a push from the respective lobbying group to ensure that a female candidate is nominated and then elected. So why is this one such a devastating loss for activists?

Let us briefly look at what representation means in the broader scope of things, and why certain representatives may be more valuable over others. The concept of representation, first emphasized by colossal writers such as John Stuart Mill and Edmund Burke, has arisen in modern political science from Hanna Pitkin’s “The Concept of Representation” in 1967. Pitkin was the first to classify representation, and defined it as “making present of something that is not present literally or in fact”[1]; this was a politician’s main job. Although this concept is mostly focused on members of legislative bodies, it is applicable to other positions, including that of the UNSG. Pitkin furthermore subdivided representation into descriptive terms, ie. where representatives resemble qualities and characteristics of the electorate, and substantive terms, ie. where representatives act for the people that they are representing. The first type looks at physical attributes and character; the latter looks at policies and voting patterns. It is thus true that Britain currently has a female Prime Minister, but the fact that she is a woman does not mean that British women are being benefited from her presence at 10 Downing Street. Theoretically, it could be argued that British women could be better benefited if a man held May’s post, but implemented more women-friendly policies. Academics such as Harold Wilensky[2] and Arend Ljiphart[3] emphasize this point: having women in politics, as with any other minority, is merely decorative if the policies implemented do not witness a directional shift.

In other words, while descriptive representation can limit itself to being merely motivational and decorative, substantive representation ensures that minority’s interests are actually being protected. The question of which one matters most differs for every post, but the UNSG is one of the few positions where descriptive representation can and does make a difference. Although F.D. Roosevelt envisioned the UNSG as the world’s top diplomat, the UNSG is in fact, according to Article 97 of Chapter XV of the UN Charter[4], merely the “chief administrative officer”. In other words, the UNSG is the top bureaucrat of the UN who implements, gives action to, and administrates the work of the UN ‘legislative’ bodies. In short, it is the recommendation-providing General Assembly and the decision-providing Security Council. While it is true that the UNSG can place issues on the Security Council’s agenda, the last thing the Security Council will consider are the UNSG’s proposals, if other items are posed. So, the UNSG’s power as a diplomat is minimal, at best; it is an executive position like that of a CEO in a company, managing global affairs.

Yet importantly, the added plus is that the UNSG’s company is the world’s most important cooperative body, and just like Pope Francis, his/her opinions, appearance, and characteristics send ripple effects worldwide. Oh, and dare we remember that the UN’s greatest influence is in ensuring social equality worldwide — including gender equality — without infringing on a country’s sovereignty? Indeed, it is precisely in the UNSG’s image as global leader and head of an organization that the impact could be made with regards to the inequality women face worldwide. Such a powerful image could inspire, motivate, and incentivize women who may feel repressed and constrained to dream and eventually, act.

There is nothing to say that Guterres’ mandate will be unsuccessful: in fact, his résumé indicates otherwise. Perhaps it can also be argued that objectively, the women who posted their candidacy for UNSG were less qualified than Guterres and deservedly lost, although it is not as if Malcorra’s, Clark’s, and Bokova’s résumés were banal either. But now, after encouragement from the current UNSG Ban Ki-Moon himself, and the whole General Assembly, topics which the UN fervently debates over — female genital mutilation, inequality in income, lifestyle, or opportunities, and/or physical, verbal, or emotional abuse — will have to wait at least five years to be debated by a woman. Keep in mind however that while decorative representation awaits, it shouldn’t be assumed Guterres will be incapable of addressing these issues himself.

The take-home point is not that the Security Council or the UN itself is sexist. Guterres wasn’t elected because the Security Council wanted a man: barring his accolades, he was elected because other geopolitical and ideological conflicts unfortunately ruled out the seven female candidates. The UN has always been the result of politics; the ninth selection of the UNSG was no exception, and this time, female candidates lost out.

[1] Pitkin, Hanna, (1967). The Concept of Representation, Los Angeles: University of Press.

[2] Wilensky, Harold (1991). “The Nation-State, Social Policy, and Economic Performance”. IRLE

Working Papers, [online] (25-91). Available at:

[3] Lijphart, Arend (1999). Patterns of democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[4] United Nations Charter, Chapter XV, Article 97. Available at:

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