Maria Emma Mejia has served in public office since she was 26. Now 62, she’s been a presidential adviser in Colombia and a respected social worker who could deliver services to those in need — even when it meant negotiating with the drug cartel of Medellín. In her current post, as Colombia’s ambassador to the UN, Mejia is the driving force to bring the ultimate gender equality to the international body – by electing a female UN Secretary General.
Since it was created in 1948, the UN has had eight secretaries general — all of them men. Hiring for other high-level UN positions also doesn’t reflect enough gender diversity, say critics; only about one-quarter of the top jobs are currently held by females.
“It is time to ensure equal consideration of all candidates,” said Mejia. “The UN needs to apply what it preaches: to promote gender equality and empower women,” she said.
More than 31 countries have signed a formal petition to the UN General Assembly calling for a female to replace Ban Ki Moon, the current secretary general, whose terms ends in 2016. The petition also demands other reforms to promote more women in the UN system.
Mejia is the main proponent of the petition. but her office says there is no self-interest in her move. By tradition, the secretary general’s position rotates among geographic regions, and for next year’s elections it’s Eastern Europe’s turn.
No one expects that unwritten geographic rule to be broken – especially since there has never been a secretary general from the region, which stretches from Poland and the Czech Republic in the west to Ukraine and Russia in the east.
“It’s a region that was politically sidelined throughout the cold war and the post-communist transition,” said David Clark, chair of the Russia Foundation, a think tank that promotes greater understanding of contemporary Russia.
“These countries feel that they deserve recognition for their success in transforming themselves into strong and independent nation states,” Clark wrote in a blog post.
Among possible candidates mentioned by Clark was former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic, though the U.S. likely would not support him because of political sensitivities over Kosovo. Other possibilities would be Danilo Turk, former president of Slovenia, and Srgjan Kerim, former foreign minister of Macedonia.
But none of those candidates would qualify if UN members commit to having a female Secretary General. Among posible female contendors would be Irina Bokova, current head of UNESCO and former Bulgarian foreign minister; Kristalina Georgieva, another Bulgarian who is now vice-president of the European Commission; and Vesna Pusic, the foreign minister of Croatia.
Colombia’s ambassador isn’t stating a preference for any specific candidate. Instead, Mejia keeps pushing for support for the bigger idea, through a group called “Friends to Elect a Woman Secretary-General,” which meets every week.
Allies include countries from Bangladesh to Argentina, and both The New York Times and The Washington Post have editorialized in support of a woman secretary general.
More endorsements of the idea won’t necessarily mean a greater chance of victory, though. Traditionally, the five permanent members of the Security Council — France, the United Kingdom, Russia, China and the United States — nominate a candidate without any public discussion. Their choice is all but certain to be ratified – by the full Security Council and then by the General Assembly of all UN member states. So if the five permanent members don’t put forward a female candidate, a woman isn’t likely to replace Ban Ki Moon.
Still, a pressure campaign by enough UN members could work. “History could help this movement to have a success,” said Juan Pablo Salazar, an academic who studies Colombian diplomacy. Salazar cites a precedent in 1991, when African countries pressured the Security Council to elect a secretary general from their continent for the first time. “They achieved it,” said Salazar, noting the election that year of Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt.