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Race Is On To Find A Successor To U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the Smara refugees camp in Algeria on Saturday. His term will expire in December.
Toufik Doudou
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visits the Smara refugees camp in Algeria on Saturday. His term will expire in December.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's term expires at the end of this year. The election process to find a successor usually plays out behind closed doors. This year, though, the U.N. is trying something new — giving candidates a chance to make their case in public. And, there's a big push by activists to get a woman at the helm.

Longtime U.N. watcher Jean Krasno is on a mission. The U.N. has had eight secretaries-general in its 70-year history — all of them men. Krasno, who teaches at The City College of New York and Columbia University, wants the ninth secretary-general to be a woman.

"When we look at the crises around the world — whether it's civil wars in Africa and the Middle East or the massive migration into Europe — it's often women that bear the brunt of this," Krasno says. "They need a voice, and what better way to give women a voice than have the top post at the U.N. be a woman?"

Krasno runs a website that offers many suggestions, and she's organizing public events for some of the female candidates already in the running.

"There are so many amazing, outstanding women around the world," Krasno says. "So the argument that there aren't enough qualified women to choose from is no longer valid."

In the past, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members quietly discussed their choices for secretary-general and nominated one to be approved by all U.N. member states that make up the general assembly. Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft is trying something new, encouraging countries to nominate candidates themselves. He's also planning public hearings.

"What we are embarking on now is an unprecedented transparency in the process of selecting the next secretary-general of the United Nations," Lykketoft says.

There's never been a secretary-general from Central or Eastern Europe and Russia is pressing for that. So far, most of the formal nominees are from that region, including three women from Bulgaria, Moldova and Croatia.

A former U.S. diplomat who served at the U.N., Elizabeth Cousens, says the regional rotation is not set in stone, though.

"Western Europe has had three turns at the wheel, Latin America has had only one turn, under Perez de Cuellar from Peru as you may recall," Cousens says. "Africa has had two secretary-generals, Boutros-Ghali and then Kofi Annan, and the Asian region has had U Thant and then Ban Ki-moon, obviously."

Cousens now runs the U.N. Foundation, which advocates for U.N. causes in the U.S. She says Americans should want an effective United Nations and a capable person at the helm.

"A voice for the voiceless," Cousens says. "Someone who can advocate for the human rights of the abused, for humanitarian values and principles and who can also be an effective diplomat in some of the most difficult geopolitical situations is something that is very much in American interests and something that every American should have a stake in following."

The next secretary-general should be in place just before a new U.S. president moves into the White House.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.