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Irina Bokova and Helen Clark – UN colleagues now on collision course


Back in 2009, in one of my earliest blogs, I noted that two women – one from Bulgaria and the other from New Zealand and similarly aged – had risen to high places in the United Nations. The item is here. Irina Bokova had come from behind in a very public fight to head UNESCO and Clark had in much less transparent fashion emerged as the new boss of the UNDP. Both have retained their posts, each doing a good job by all accounts, and now their paths are set to cross. For mid-way through next year, the top UN post – that of Secretary-General – becomes vacant. Bokova and Clark are both contenders for the job.

Irina Bokova (L) and Helen Clark – together but in competition for top world job.

The question is, who has the front running? And related, are either in with a decent chance?

The fact that both are women is more than an incidental factor. All UN Secretary-Generals to this point (eight in total) have been men and there is a widespread feeling that now is the time to rectify the situation.

Bokova and Clark aren’t the only female contenders, there is also Dalia Grybauskaitė, currently president of Lithuania. But she has a problem, describable in two words – ‘Russian veto’. In the current climate – the tension over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and attendant deep mistrust in the former Baltic Soviet republics as to Russia’s intentions for them – it seems inconceivable that Russia would allow the next UN leader to hail from those parts.

So if it’s to be a woman, unless an interloper should emerge, it’s going to be either Bokova or Clark. Given my strong connections with both their countries, I’d root for either. But I think it’ll be Bokova, and here’s why.

She’s from ‘Eastern’ Europe and, as with the gender issue, there is general agreement where these things are talked about that it’s that region’s turn. The Cold War pretty much scuppered the prospects of any such appointment for the first 45 or so years of the UN’s existence and, so the feeling goes, it’s high time that a Secretary-General came from behind the former Iron Curtain.

Bokova has never been a prime minister, unlike Clark who did three consecutive terms as New Zealand’s chief executive officer. None of the preceding eight UN bosses were their countries’ prime minister. Half of them though were foreign ministers, which Bokova has in her CV, albeit a short stint in a relieving capacity.

What Bokova also has is fluency in French (she did a stint in Bulgaria’s mission to Paris). That might sound a little odd as a job requirement but not if you’re France, you’re doing everything you can to maintain your language on the world stage, and you – like Russia – have a veto vote on the UN S-G appointment. Helen Clark has many relevant credentials, but the ability to speak French isn’t one of them.

And there’s perhaps one other thing. Whereas Bokova’s candidacy has had a ringing endorsement from her country’s government (well, the one which existed when she put her hat in the ring), the support in New Zealand for Helen Clark’s run has been at best muted. That government – now in its third term – is right of centre and Clark was from the left. So there are politics in play. The reported stance of the New Zealand government is that, yes, they will support Clark if she really wants to run but that New Zealand recognises that Eastern Europe is due a turn.

Adding it all up, you’d be forgiven for putting your money on Irina Bokova as the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. Remember you read it here first.

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