15 February 2006

For the first time in its prestigious history, the International Court of Justice elected a woman, Rosalyn Higgins as President. Ms Higgins has distinguished herself as an international lawyer, scholar, author and a first rate intellectual. The International Court, based in The Hague, Netherlands, settles disputes among nations. Its President is usually considered the most highly regarded jurist in the world. Before her election 6 February, Ms. Higgins was the only woman ever to sit on the Court. Those who know her over the years since her active role at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House) in London, attest to her professional brilliance, her commitment to justice and her warm personal charm.

About the same time, three other women also emerged into leadership roles from three different world continents.

Angela Merkel was popularly elected as Chancellor of Germany, one of Europe's most powerful countries. Chile, a most powerful growth engine in Latin America elected its first woman, President Bachelet - an unwed mother, an unflinching fighter against oppression who had endured prison torture and exile before winning the popular vote -- to become the first woman President in Southern America. And Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, former U.N. Development Programme Assistant Administrator for Africa, was overwhelmingly elected in an internationally supervised referendum as Liberia's President and the first woman President in Africa.

At the U.N. system, there was some progress at least with a new High Commissioner for Refugees. Antonio Gutteres, who replaced feely-touchy Ruud Lubbers appointed two women as Assistant High Commissioner. That means that by February 15, Mr. Gutteres will be the only male in UNHCR leadership quartet. The Deputy High Commissioner and the two newly appointed Assistants are women. A confident step indeed.

Gry Tina Tinde, who took charge of advancing women in UNHCR since 2004, publicly congratulated Mr. Gutteres. A former colleague in New York who had joined the U.N. through the National Exam in Norway, Ms. Tinde compared action taken in Geneva with lack of similar progress elsewhere at the U.N. For example, in the U.N. Secretariat, which should set the highest standard for women's advancement in the U.N. system and which is not challenged by a policy like UNHCR's obligatory staff rotation to hardship duty stations, the representation of women at the top levels decreased by 1.8 percent from 2004 to 2005. At the D-1 level and above in the U.N. Secretariat, women make up 27.2 percent. (One could wonder whether the top managers are pursuing U.N. gender equality goals or if their devotion to the cause is limited to their speeches on International Women's Day.

Information from the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI) and OHRM shows that last year the representation of women USGs decreased by 0.5 percent, to 16.2 percent (6 women and 31 men). Women ASGs make up 18.8 percent (9 women and 39 men). Women make up 26.7 percent of D-2s and 29.9 percent of D-1s.

Ms. Tinde points out that reaching the target of equal representation of women and men at all levels in the U.N. system will continue to be difficult, if not impossible, if current trends in the U.N. Secretariat are allowed to continue. Increased pressure is needed to remind U.N. Ambassadors that they should not contravene General Assembly resolutions they themselves have passed on gender equality targets in U.N. staffing. Today 90 percent of all U.N. Permanent Representatives (in New York, Geneva and Vienna) are men. U.N. managers must abide by those resolutions, too, and respect their calls for transparency and recruitment based on qualifications rather than buddy networks and political preferences.

An excellent 50-page report by the Secretary-General to the GA in September 2004 on the situation of women in the U.N. system has gone largely unnoticed by top human resources management in U.N. agencies, despite its 36 recommended measures that would enhance women's representation at senior levels. Until a few months ago -- that is over a year later -- the U.N. Secretariat/OHRM had not begun to implement a single recommendation. Several studies are reportedly under preparation. But nothing tangible yet is compared to action taken at UNHCR.

Well done Tina. And, of course, thank you -- obrigado -- Mr. Gutteres.

Meanwhile, as International Women's Day approaches on 8 March, it should be noted that it is important for women not only to make history by breaking through formidable barriers, but to be also allowed to make leadership decisions.