What Would Bertha Lutz Say? Making Sense of the United Nations Secretary-General Election

October 24 is United Nations (UN) Day. In this guest post, Sylvanna Falcón—author of Power Interrupted: Antiracist and Feminist Activism inside the United Nations—weighs in on the recent election of António Guterres to Secretary-General-Designate of the UN.

Struggles over representation, power, and voice occurred during the first United Nations (UN) conference in 1945 where delegates discussed the structure of this new multilateral institution, including the formation of the Security Council and the drafting of the UN Charter. The struggle over representation at the UN is further complicated by geopolitical dynamics in which certain countries of the world are disproportionately empowered at the UN and tend to stifle the voices of those who are less powerfully positioned. Today, these geopolitical dynamics remain reflected in the Security Council, which wielded its formidable influence regarding the recent election of the next Secretary-General—Portugal’s former prime minister, António Guterres—through secret straw polls. With its current configuration of 15 members, including only one woman (US Ambassador Samantha Power), the Security Council forwarded its recommendation to the General Assembly for a full vote that occurred within a matter of days earlier this month.

Bertha Lutz, the Brazilian delegate to the 1945 UN conference, remarked at the time, “The men like to hear themselves very much.” As one of four women to sign the UN Charter (out of 160 signatories), Lutz was a feminist associated with the Brazilian suffragist movement. She became frustrated with the men from the conference, whom she described as amicable but determined to create an international organization in which women would not play any central role. It would be fitting to ask ourselves in Lutz’s honor why “the men like to hear themselves very much” and about the evaluation criteria the Security Council referenced for their endorsement of Guterres.

The representation of women in high level positions at the UN has been too infrequent. The late Dame Margaret Anstee of Britain, who dedicated her life to the UN, reached the highest level appointment ever occupied by a woman in 1987, when she was named Under Secretary-General. Importantly, seven out of thirteen candidates for the UNSG position were women, indicating that at least the applicant pool had some gender balance to it, but it completely lacked any semblance of equity in terms of regional representation (for example, no applicant came from the African region). While that outcome is disappointing, it is not surprising given the UN has been troubled by problems of representation since its founding.

Mr. Guterres is by all accounts an established and respected diplomat. Having formerly served as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he expressed a commitment to gender equality and gender parity in his vision statement, which I believe is at least promising. He wrote, “The UN must be at the forefront of the global movement towards gender equality, an inalienable and indivisible feature of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Perhaps he should look closely at the work of feminist activists who understand that gender equality and parity can only be achieved with a simultaneous commitment to combating global racism.

Sylvanna M. Falcón is author of Power Interrupted and an associate professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She will be awarded the 2016 Gloria E. Anzaldúa book prize given by the National Women’s Studies Association at the 2016 NWSA annual conference in Montréal, Canada, in November.

2 thoughts on “What Would Bertha Lutz Say? Making Sense of the United Nations Secretary-General Election

  1. Pingback: What Would Bertha Lutz Say? Making Sense of the United Nations Secretary-General Election

  2. Pingback: National Women’s Studies Association Conference Preview | University of Washington Press Blog

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