Helen Clark Guns for Top UN Post as Calls for Woman Leader Mount

  • UNDP head and former NZ leader faces competition from Europe
  • Some nations support election of a woman, lobby group says

Helen Clark, the New Zealand leader who refused U.S. calls to send troops to Iraq, said she will run for secretary-general of the United Nations amid a global campaign to install a woman in the world’s top diplomatic post.

Clark, 66, became the eighth candidate -- and fourth woman -- to be nominated to succeed Ban Ki-moon, who will finish his term later this year. The first female elected prime minister of New Zealand, Clark led the country for nine years before becoming the first woman to helm the UN Development Programme, which administers the global body’s poverty eradication program, in 2009.

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

The secretary-general position has been an exclusively male bastion since the UN was created in the aftermath of World War II. The next leader will be decided under a new process aimed at introducing greater transparency. The applicants will for the first time hold informal meetings with the UN’s 193 nations before the 15-member Security Council recommends a candidate to be approved by the General Assembly.

‘Let’s Move On’

A core group of UN member states supports the bid for a woman to be nominated, said Jean Krasno, a lecturer at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

“Right now, this is time for a woman after eight men -- let’s move on here,” said Krasno, who chairs 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. So you can’t any longer hold the argument that there aren’t enough qualified women.”

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.

‘Right Mix’

Clark, raised on a farm on New Zealand’s North Island, has the “right mix of skills and experience for the job,” current New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Tuesday in Wellington, announcing his country’s nomination of Clark. As a new lawmaker in the early 1980s, she condemned the U.S. Navy’s deployment of nuclear cruise missiles in the Pacific. Decades later as Prime Minister, Clark refused to send combat troops to Iraq, which hurt her government’s relationship with the U.S.

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.”

Bulgaria, Croatia

The other women nominees 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.

‘Widely Respected’

The third-most senior person at the UN, Clark is “widely respected,” said Rachel Vogelstein, director of the Women and Foreign policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Certainly her knowledge of the workings of the UN system could be an advantage.”

A former prime minister has never been secretary-general, said Ramesh Thakur, director of the Australian National University’s Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament in Canberra.

U.S. v Russia

“The U.S. and Russia -- they’ll ultimately do what’s in their interest,” said Thakur, who was vice rector of the United Nations University from 1998 to 2007, a position that afforded him the title Assistant Secretary-General of the UN. “They’re happier with someone at the foreign minister level who’s used to taking orders -- someone they can control.”

Prospective candidates include current and former national political leaders Angela Merkel of Germany, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Helle Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark, Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania, Janos Ader of Hungary, Romano Prodi of Italy, Alexander Stubb of Finland, and Kevin Rudd of Australia, according to the Task Force on Good Governance in the Secretary-General Selection.

The group, established by the New York City Bar Association and law firm Linklaters LLP, also names as potential nominees current and former foreign ministers from Sweden, Colombia, Serbia, Slovakia, Argentina, and Poland.

The race for secretary-general is a “delicate dance,” particularly for the Eastern European candidates, Thakur said. Anyone favored by Russia will probably be vetoed by the U.S. and anyone favored by the U.S. will likely be vetoed by Russia. 

The new secretary-general’s “main challenge will be to re-position the UN as the main agency for tackling world problems,” he said. “Helen Clark has an outside chance.”

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