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The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews James Bays

On The Nation: Lisa Owen interviews James Bays


Lisa Owen: Al Jazeera interviewer James Bays moderated the first-ever televised debate between candidates for the United Nations’ top job in July. I spoke to him just before we came on air this morning, and I began by asking why Antonio Guterres, who has been outspoken as head of the UN Refugee Agency, didn’t get any vetoes.
James Bays: Well, I think you have to look at what happened. I mean, it wasn’t a surprise to me at the end, because we’d had these five straw polls, when he’d been doing pretty well throughout, and he’s certainly popular among the membership of the United Nations. I think early on if you’d told me at the beginning of this competition, this contest for this top job here at the UN, that he was going to get it, I would have been surprised, because the word was it was the turn, after eight men as Secretary General, for a female Secretary General, and it also was the turn for a part of the world that’s never had a Secretary General, and the part of the world which was arguing the most, of course, was Eastern Europe, and there are obviously other regions, but not necessarily formal groups here at the UN, that haven’t had a Secretary General before. But one of the reasons is the fact that he’s a very known quantity. Now, you compare him with Helen Clark. She leads a big UN agency, and she’s a former prime minister, so pretty much the same qualifications.
Well, that’s the thing.
The difference, I think, is– Go ahead.
Well, I was just going to say, James, the Russian ambassador said that– He basically read out Mr Guterres’ CV and said he had great credentials, he held this position at the UN, which meant he’d travelled and seen conflict, he’d been a senior politician, but he could have been reading out Helen Clark’s CV as well, so I’m wondering, ‘What was the difference between them?’
Well, I think there are a number of differences. One, I think, is the job they happen to have at the moment, or had in their last job, because Mr Guterres stood down last year. He’s been leading the Refugee Agency, which is doing humanitarian work very visible around the world, going to refugee camps, going to schools, there with refugees, there with refugee children. Helen Clark’s job, very important in the UN system, but it’s not quite so visible. It’s dealing with development, long-term goals, and the UNDP that she heads is the backbone of the international system of the UN. In all the countries where the UN doesn’t have a peacekeeping presence, it’s actually the UNDP that heads the country office. Very important, but perhaps not a humanitarian agency, so it doesn’t get the same attention. I think that the other thing is that they’ve both been reformers in their two agencies. Certainly the reforms at UNHCR are seen as a success. The reforms at UNDP, well, I think they were very tough reforms there, but I think they maybe ruffled a few feathers of a few people that Helen Clark really changed things. So one way you can look at it is the Security Council is going for someone who is a stronger voice, who is reform-minded, but perhaps they’ve gone for someone who they know is not going to rock the boat, and perhaps they thought Helen Clark was going to do that.
Because the strong feeling was also that it should be the time to have a woman in this job. What was the issue there? Was it just that the female candidates were seen as not good enough?
It is very surprising when you look at the thirteen candidates who were in this race and you look at the final results of the final straw poll, and the highest-placed woman was Irina Bokova, who came number four, and Helen Clark was number five, and yet all along we’d heard from a lot of voices, including the US ambassador Samantha Power, that after eight men, it really was the turn for a woman, and you did have a lot of very, very well-qualified women who’ve done all sorts of important jobs, are still doing important jobs – for example, the foreign minister of Argentina. But we had foreign ministers from other countries as well. Helen Clark’s still doing that job at UNDP. And they did so badly in the various straw polls. I think it was a bit different earlier on when we were looking at the early stage of this, when they were all presenting their cases to the General Assembly, to the 193 member states of the UN. The women seemed to do better then, but in the end, they’re not the constituency that matters. It’s just those 15 countries around the Security Council table, and really, when it comes to the very last stage, that last straw poll, where they took into account who had a veto and who could actually stop a candidate, to really those five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, who really hold all the cards in this international system, they happen to be, 71 years on, still, effectively, the victors of World War II, still run the UN.
Tell me, what do you think is Helen Clark’s future, then, at the UN, and could she conceivably end up as his deputy?
I don’t know the answer to that. I have been asking diplomats about that possibility. I think if she was to put herself forward to be Antonio Guterres’ deputy, if she was to suggest that she was open to the idea, then I think that is a possibility. Certainly Antonio Guterres has said that he would like a woman to be his deputy. He knows during his campaign that was his weak area, that he wasn’t a woman, and he made it quite clear, ‘I can’t change that about myself, but what I am going to do is try and make sure that I have women in all the important jobs, or some of the important jobs, at least, in the United Nations and try and have gender parity in the senior roles,’ something that has not been achieved, something that Ban Ki-Moon promised, and, in fact, the number of women in top jobs, if you look at it over Ban Ki-Moon’s ten years, has actually gone down rather than up. So I think Helen Clark, if she wants the job, would be a candidate, but Mr Guterres has also said that he wants someone from the global south, and the current word from diplomats is perhaps we’re looking at a deputy secretary general from an African country.
Well, we’ll keep watching with interest, James Bays. Thank you so much for joining us this morning. I appreciate your time.

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