Helen Clark Becomes Fourth Woman to Join Fray for Top UN Job

  • The former New Zealand prime minister currently heads the UNDP
  • Clark faces competition from Eastern European candidates

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark will run for secretary-general of the United Nations, the fourth woman to throw her hat in the ring for the world’s top diplomatic post.

Clark, 66, has the “right mix of skills and experience for the job,” current New Zealand Premier John Key said Tuesday in Wellington, announcing his country’s nomination of Clark to replace Ban Ki-moon when he steps down at the end of 2016.

“There are major global challenges facing the world today and the United Nations needs a proven leader who can be pragmatic and effective,” said Key. “Coming from New Zealand, Helen Clark is well placed to bridge divisions and get results.”

Clark, currently head of the UN Development Programme, is the eighth candidate to be nominated for the role, which will be decided under a new process aimed at introducing greater transparency. The applicants will hold informal meetings with the UN’s 193 nations, and the 15-member Security Council will then recommend a candidate to be approved by the General Assembly.

Consensus Builder

Clark’s bid comes amid a global campaign to have a woman elected to the job. The secretary-general position has been an exclusively male bastion since the UN was created in the aftermath of World War II.

The first woman to become prime minister of New Zealand in a general election, Clark served three consecutive terms from 1999 to 2008, when she was beaten by Key. A political studies professor from New Zealand’s rural Waikato region, Clark went on to become the first woman to lead the UNDP, which administers the global body’s poverty eradication program.

“I know how to build consensus on issues,” Clark said at a press conference in New York. “The UN has many tools in its tool kit and they all have to be utilized for a more peaceful and inclusive society.”

Russia Factor

Clark faces a tough race. It is widely viewed as Eastern Europe’s turn to fill the secretary-general’s chair under an unofficial system of job rotation among geographical regions, said John Langmore, assistant director of research at the University of Melbourne’s School of Government and a former director of the UN’s division for Social Policy and Development.

“Helen Clark is a stronger potential candidate than anyone from this area ever before, but the sentiment in favor of a secretary-general from Eastern Europe is very strong,” Langmore said in an interview before Clark announced her candidacy. “The only way I can think of is that Russia says it doesn’t like any of the Eastern European candidates.”

Other Candidates

The other women that have been put forward are Bulgaria’s Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, former Croatian foreign minister Vesna Pusic and Natalia Gherman, former foreign minister of Moldova. The other four candidates are former Macedonian foreign minister Srgjan Kerim, foreign minister of Montenegro Igor Luksic, former Slovenian President Danilo Turk and former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who is Portuguese.

Both Portugal and New Zealand are included in the “Western European and Others” grouping at the UN.

When asked about the notion of it being Eastern Europe’s turn at the UN’s helm, Clark said nominations were called from all nations.

“I can offer the style of leadership needed today,” she said.

The Security Council -- which includes the permanent five members of China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- will start discussions over candidates in July. New Zealand is currently a non-permanent member of the council.

A core group of UN member states support the bid for a woman to be nominated to the job, said Jean Krasno, a professor in City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership and chair of the Campaign to Elect a Woman UN Secretary-General.

“The timing is right because women who have become empowered over the last couple of decades are finally working their way up to very, very prominent positions,” Krasno said. “So you can’t any longer hold the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women.”

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