1 September 2003

First the good news. The State of Kuwait, where women are still struggling for the right to vote, decided to appoint Ms. Nabila Al-Mulla as its Permanent Representative to the U.N. in New York. She will replace Mohammad Abul Hassan, one of the longest serving representatives who was appointed Minister of Information in the new government whose new head Sheikh Sabah El-Ahmed Al-Sabah has been an enlightened force in support of women rights; as the longest serving Foreign Minister he encouraged Kuwaiti women to join the diplomatic corps. Nabila, who combines personal charm with dedicated professional work, served most recently in Vienna where she was elected to chair the Governing body of the International Atomic Energy Agency. She had served in New York (and had a summer house in Southampton) and knows the corridors of the Secretariat quite well. As the first Arab female ambassador, she will be closely observed; but that is the story of her life and she almost always managed to deliver superbly.

While wishing the new Kuwait ambassador best of luck as she takes over in September, a look at the diplomatic scoreboard shows a failing one indeed. Only eight of the 191 missions are listed with a femaile in the top post. They are by alphabetical order: Barbados (Yvonne Clarke), Denmark (Ellen Loj), Finland (Marjatta Rasi -- one of the most experienced and effective delegates), Kazakhstan (Madina Jarbussynova), Saint Vincent (Margaret Ferrari), Suriname (Irma Loemban Tobing-Klein) and Turkmenistan (Aksoltan Ataeva). That's it. Even worse, some industrialized countries with influential women groups replaced their outgoing women ambassadors with men. That includes the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Lichtenstein. Jamaican Patricia Durrant who displayed impressive skills when her country was a member of the Security Council was recently replaced by a man.

That is the picture in September 2003, eight years after a Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing where resolutions were made at the highest governmental level; 10 years after a similar conference in Nairobi, adopting the "Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000."

Well, the year 2000 came and went. Neither the governments, nor the international community fulfilled the commitments undertaken at world conferences since Copenhagen in 1975. In fact, the U.N. Charter of 1945 reaffirms faith in the dignity of the human person and "in the equal rights of men and women."

What about the U.N. Secretariat, which prepared and highlighted these worldwide obligations?

Specific positive action by Kofi Annan included the appointment of Louise Frechette as Deputy Secretary General -- a new position -- and Catherine Bertini as Under Secretary General for Administration and Management, replacing Joseph Connor. He replaced a woman with another woman at the Population Fund and dept the formidable Carol Bellamy as head of UNICEF, after an initial failed effort to submerge her. In the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), he replaced an Egyptian man with an Egyptian woman. In the post of High Commissioner for Refugees, he replaced a pillar of international aid Ms. Sadako Ogata with a man, a former Prime Minister of the Netherlands. With the exception of Ms. Bertini, all departments are headed by men, several of whom tried with varying determination to appoint or promote women to senior professional posts. The first department to reach the internationally designated target of 50% female professionals was the Department of Public Information in 1995 which rose to 60%. The worse were the departments of special political and security council affairs. Still several women distinguished themselves, though in the number two post. For example, the gutsy Carolyn McAskie who went to the heart of every trouble spot outshined her Under-Secretary-General over the last two years. Elizabeth Lindenmeyer is a credible and highly regarded pillar at the Secretary-General's office. Jan Beagle in Personnel was perceived as more effective than her Assistant Secretary General. (An Irish woman replaced a Malaysian woman in that post.)

Ironically, the Division for the Advancement of Women, which was established specifically to move the cause forward is paralyzed. Its chief, Assistant Secretary General Angela King (Jamaica), is one of the most experienced and dedicated staff, but she has been in poor health for a while. After the irrepressible and dynamic Zuzu Tabatabai left as Focal Point, an inexperienced woman was imposed by the Secretary General's Chief of Staff only to move her to an office dealing with Iraq, where she has no experience either. But then that's the way the Chef's Kebab crumbles.

There is no doubt that when Kofi Annan took over in 1998 he was determined to make a difference in the advancement of woman. It is disappointing to note that the Division on the Advancement of Women is his weakest link.