Is a feminist United Nations possible in our lifetime?

Hopes for a female, feminist UN Secretary-General look increasingly unlikely, but there are creative ideas circulating for feminist system reforms that would spur progress from the bottom-up.

Lyric Thompson
22 August 2016

Vesna Pusic, Croatia, speaking at the informal dialogue with UN Secretary-General candidates at the UN, April 2016. Photo: Ourania Yancopoulos.

A glimmer of hope was riding on the possibility that the world might get its first female - and possibly feminist - United Nations Secretary General. The current Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, is coming to the end of his second five-year term this December, with his replacement to be named within months.

For the first time, there was a slate of female candidates vying publicly for the UN’s top job. As Croatia’s Vesna Pusic - the candidate who most loudly proclaimed her feminism (and, regrettably, so quickly shuffled to the bottom of the rankings, withdrawing her candidacy after the first straw poll) so aptly put it: “I happen to be a woman, I don’t think this is enough, I happen to be a feminist and I think this is (important).”

Yet old habits die hard - or more to the point, do not seem to die at all. With news that female candidates consistently polled at the bottom of the ranks, the vision of a feminist Secretary General ushering in a new era of equality and reform seems as likely as unlikely as ever.


United Nations,New York. Photo: Press Association. All rights reserved

This comes as no surprise to feminist activists at the UN, who have developed a healthy amount of cynicism over the years. The promise of a powerful super agency for women’s rights has fallen flat. UN Women has been chronically underfunded, politically hamstrung, and apparently, if the mandate listed on its website is to be believed, not actually an agency for women’s rights at all (did anyone notice the words were scrubbed from the mandate listed on the website?). There is, bless it, one reference to human rights, which apparently no longer include women’s rights in 2016.

To be sure, all blame is not to be heaped on the system’s newest and least-powerful agency - there is plenty of patriarchy to go around. Take the most egregious example of the continued, heartbreaking exposés of unspeakable abuses by UN peacekeepers and mission staff - unspeakable not only in the horror they invoke, but also in the inexcusable silence with which episodes of exploitation continue to be met by UN leadership. The Code Blue Campaign has some good ideas about how to end impunity for this abuse once and for all. 

Against this grim backdrop the symbol of a feminist, female Secretary General is certainly powerful and long overdue. However, absent that ideal, what glimmer of hope is there for women? Here are a few ideas crowdsourced by some clever leaders of feminist thought:

1. Start at the (almost) topIf the Secretary General is neither female nor feminist, at least the chorus of voices calling for that ideal may be loud enough to exert some pressure for feminist appointments at the Assistant Secretary General and Under Secretary General level (all of which must tender their resignations at the appointment of the next Secretary General, an “overnight opportunity for parity,” as one activist recently suggested).

2. Model transparency One activist recently called the UN the most closed system on the face of the planet, with the possible exception of North Korea. Transparency is urgently needed at the U.N. Taking a page from the Secretary General debates, UN meetings system-wide should be public, open and televised. A freedom of information policy would go far to foster transparency and accountability by allowing advocates to demand - and publish - such important information as to how many (and which gender and what type of background) candidates were vetted for key positions critical to reform, or which member states or outside donors are funding which posts.

3. Empower feminists at the UN: While the term “empowerment” has worryingly replaced “rights” for most women’s issues at the UN - see the economic section - there is an opportunity to redeem it by modeling real empowerment for feminist activists who tirelessly, thanklessly - and increasingly futilely - push for progress at the UN. The International Labor Organization’s tripartite model of shared leadership by UN. corporations and workers is a good one that has been proposed to UN Women in the past and could be adopted in a package of feminist reforms.

4. Adopt a feminist framework for Sustainable Development Goals accountability: As the world finalizes its measurement framework, linking the Global Goals to CEDAW would both advance the substance of gender mainstreaming throughout the goals, as was intended, as well as provide an urgently needed accountability framework, inclusive of a platform for civil society voices through shadow reporting.

5. Save the CSW or kill it: Either way, the annual Commission on the Status of Women is at once the symbol of all that is possible for feminism at the UN and emblematic of all that is wrong with the system as it currently stands. Worth saving is the unique platform for thousands of civil society activists to actually access “the most closed system in the world,” petitioning their states for overdue action on their rights. At no other Commission does this happen at this scale or to this effect. Worth killing is the annual, excruciating, Sisyphean brawl over women’s rights standards, out of which new ground is rarely gained, and where, occasionally, important progress is reversed. This past year, these standards were negotiated in advance, making the 2015 meeting more theatre than a true opportunity for negotiation. Additionally, the great expense to which states and activists must go to in order to travel to New York, which exacerbates the real problem of northern and elite voices dominating conversations at the UN, CSW or otherwise, for governments and civil society alike - a rare moment of shared challenge. Further, some activists may find it difficult to obtain visas to attain the CSW, limiting their ability to contribute to the process.

Certainly, additional creative ideas will surface as we move forward, but for now these few represent a starting point, a glimmer of hope from our feminist fallback position in the likely event that hopes for feminist leadership at the very top are indeed put to rest for another five years.  

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Many on the Left want to return to a politics of class, not populism. They point to Left populist parties not reaching their goals. But Chantal Mouffe argues that as the COVID-19 pandemic has put protection from harm at the top of the agenda, a Left populist strategy is now more relevant than ever.

Is this a chance to realign around a green democratic transformation?

Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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