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Who Should be the Next UN Leader?

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  • Opinion by Felix Dodds, Chris Spence (apex, north carolina / dublin, ireland)
  • Inter Press Service
Crerdit: UN Photo/Cia Pak

With current UN Secretary-General António Guterres set to step down in 2026, who is in the running to replace him? This seven-part series reveal who might be nominated and assess their chances.

The potential candidates include Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), Mia Motley (Barbados), Alicia Barcena (Mexico), Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), Rebeca Grynspan (Costa Rica) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile). These are names that have come up in conversations with UN insiders and other experts. All six would offer skills and experiences we believe would be valuable in these fast-paced, uncertain times.

She is Barbados’ eighth Prime Minister and the first woman to hold this office. She has led her country’s Labour Party to two landslide election victories in 2018 and 2022. If UN member states are looking for a head of state to guide the UN and multilateralism in these troubled times, Mia Mottley will be a clear contender.

Mia Mottley first appeared on many people’s radars after her impassioned speech at the Glasgow COP26 Climate Conference in late 2021. Her fiery words in Scotland were followed shortly afterwards by her Bridgetown Initiative, which calls for a major reform of the world’s multilateral financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In particular, Mottley wants the IMF and others to ramp-up their work on climate change and other development challenges and provide more support for the most vulnerable countries. She has urged making financing easier to access and available at lower interest rates. For the most vulnerable, she is an advocate for grants, rather than loans that increase a country’s debt.

Working with the government of France and other partners from both North and South, Mottley has been advocating for clear and measurable changes in international funding, including more money for climate resilience and special drawing rights to enable developing countries to access emergency climate funds quickly and easily.

Her vocal calls for a “loss and damage” fund paid off at COP27 in Egypt when, against many insiders’ expectations, Mottley and her allies successfully advocated for the creation of a new funding institution.

This fund, which will support countries suffering loss and damage from climate change, had long been considered unachievable due to opposition in the North. The breakthrough at COP27 and subsequent progress at COP28 in Dubai have burnished Mottley’s reputation as a reformer.

Climate financing is not the only issue where the Barbadian leader has made a name for herself, however. On COVID 19, she resisted calls to restrict cruise ships when the pandemic hit, offering 28 “homeless” vessels entry in 2020 when other countries were turning them away.

More recently, she has been leading efforts on antimicrobial resistance—an issue widely viewed as a major emerging global threat to human health. She has also been a strong advocate for sustainable development and for reparations for slavery.

A Republican and UN Reformer

In 2021, Mottley also took the historic act of transforming Barbados into a republic, bidding farewell to Queen Elizabeth II as the country’s Head of State. More recently, she has set her sights on reforming the UN Security Council and in particular the veto powers granted to the UK, US, Russia, China, and France.

In her speech in 2022 to the UN General Assembly, Mottley said:

    “We believe that a Security Council that retains the power of veto in the hands of a few will still lead us to war as we have seen this year, and therefore the reform cannot simply be in its composition but also the removal of that veto.”

Assessing Mottley’s Prospects

Could Mia Mottley become the next UN Secretary-General? Here is our assessment of her advantages and disadvantages should she choose to enter the contest.

Advantages

  • A Woman Leader: Mia Mottley would be a strong candidate to break the glass ceiling and become the first female leader of the UN.
  • Location, Location: With the tradition that the UN Secretary-General is chosen by rotating through the various UN regions, Mottley might be in the right place at the right time. Although the last selection broke the cycle (Guterres is from Portugal, whereas an Eastern European was supposed to be chosen), some people believe the convention of rotation should be restored and that it is now the turn of the Latin America and Caribbean region to nominate Guterres’ successor. Given Barbados’ location, Mottley could find herself coming from the right place at the right time.
  • Proven Impact: Mottley’s success with the loss and damage fund, as well as her noteworthy move to turn Barbados into a republic, have given her a reputation as someone who can get things done. Given the uncertainty swirling around international diplomacy these days, a figure with a reputation as a dynamic achiever may be welcomed.
  • Connections: As a national leader active on the international stage, Mottley is well connected and has developed good relations with leaders both in the North and South. Could her networks and connections with senior politicians help her?

Disadvantages

  • A Threat to the Big Five? Mottley is pushing for UN Security Council reform, including ending the veto powers of the Big Five permanent members: the US, UK, China, Russia, and France. And yet it is these countries that must ultimately agree on and nominate a candidate for Secretary-General, which the General Assembly must then approve.
  • While it seems highly unlikely the UK would hold any grudges at Barbados’ move to become a republic—something other countries have done before—how comfortable would any of the so-called Big Five feel appointing a fiery advocate for curtailing their own UN status and privilege? Would they resist such change … or might they see in Mottley someone with whom they could talk, negotiate, and possibly find some sort of compromise?

Whoever emerges as Guterres’ successor will need to convince all five permanent Security Council members that they are the best person for the job. It will be a difficult line for anyone to walk, especially when even a single veto could scuttle their hopes.

In spite of Mottley’s obvious credentials, it is her advocacy for Security Council reform that may weigh most heavily against any aspirations she may have to take the top job. The powers of persuasion for which she is known will need to be on full display.

Prof. Felix Dodds and Chris Spence have participated in United Nations conferences and negotiations since the 1990s. They co-edited Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022), which examines the roles of individuals in inspiring change.

IPS UN Bureau

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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