The Candidates Who Could Lead UN Women

Ed note. I’m pleased to welcome Tony Fleming to UN Dispatch. Tony  is the principal author and editor at, covering the processes and actors involved in the selection of high-level multilateral leadership.

The race for the next leader of UN Women is coming to a swift conclusion.

UN Women is a new arm of the United Nations created in 2010 to streamline the work of the UN family around women’s empowerment and gender equality. For most of the past two years it was ably lead by Michelle Bachalet, the former president of Chile. She resigned suddenly in March (to be a candidate for President of Chile once again) and since then there has been a vigorous but quiet behind-the-scenes race to replace her.

The post will be filled directly by the Secretary General based on a shortlist of candidates, pared down by his senior advisors from nominees put forward over the past two months. The final selection by Ban is expected to be announced “imminently,” according to a source who spoke with the website Pass Blue.

Two top contenders appear to have emerged from a field of at least five confirmed nominees.

Rebeca Grynspan continues to be the rumored front-runner, likely due to strong lobbying on behalf of Latin American states to hold onto the post after Michelle Bachelet’s sudden mid-term resignation in March. A letter was sent on behalf of the “GRULAC” members to Ban strongly noting the region’s interest in maintaining the post in order to ensure geographic balance among under-secretary generals /assistant secretary generals. An official at a GRULAC mission confirmed that the Secretary General responded but made no commitments on a regional preference.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda from Zimbabwe also remains a strong contender for the post. She has traveled extensively since her nomination and has been outspoken on social media on the issues of concern to UN Women. This has earned her a significant following. Her selection would likely put a more public face on the work of the organization.

Possibly also on the shortlist is Alcinda António De Abreu, the current environmental minister of Mozambique. Her candidacy was the most recently made public, through outreach effort by the Association of Women in Development. PassBlue mentions her as a second African nominee but does not specifically note if she is still under consideration.

Other names that have been batted around as possible candidates, albeit longshots, include former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell. But as a conservative head of state from the North, she doesn’t fit the profile which Secretary General was expected to seek for the organization’s head.  The same expectation made former Finnish president Tarja Halonen an unlikely choice in 2010, and she later confirmed that she was also not a candidate for the post this year. Acting Director Lakshmi Puri of India also confirmed that she was not seeking the office. Sri Lankan Radhika Coomaraswamy, former Special Advisor to the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict, also reported that she was unaware of her name being put forward for the post. Patricia Francis, confirmed by the Jamaican permanent mission as a candidate shortly after the deadline, is also no longer under consideration if the report on the shortlist is accurate.

The new Director will assume office prior to the opening of the 68th session of the General Assembly in September, perhaps much sooner.  The term of office is nominally four years, but the incoming Director will likely serve a truncated 3 ½ year term, submitting her pro forma resignation to the Ban’s successor in January 2017. Whether she is reappointed to the post will be up to the new Secretary General at that time but there has traditionally been more turn-over in such posts between Secretaries General as governments jockey for position.

Whomever replaces Bachelet will take the helm of an organization that is still very much in its infancy. She will have the opportunity to make a lasting imprint on UN Women and potentially help define its work for years to come. It is no wonder this is such a hotly contested seat.

The Association of Women in Development interviewed several of the nominees on their interest in the post and priorities for the organization. Such openness and transparency among candidates for a post to be filled behind the closed-doors of the Secretary General’s office would be a net positive for the organization and an inspiration for women and girls around the world. Let’s encourage Mr. Ban to choose well.