06/22/2015 05:23 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2016

The Eastern European Women in the Race to Lead the UN

In my last blog, I announced the launch of the global SheUnited campaign to press the case that the United Nations should appoint its first women secretary-general when the post becomes vacant next year. The current Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has lent his own authority to calls for a woman to take the top job. The General Assembly has over many years repeatedly raised the issue of gender equality in the selection process.

According to the UN principle of rotation between the five regional groups, the post is supposed to go to a candidate from Eastern Europe this time, as the only group never to have held it. There is a long list of very able female candidates with the qualities and experience needed for the job, including several from Eastern Europe. However, their challenge will be to secure the support of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- U.S., Russia, China, France and the UK - each of whom has a veto.

Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania's first woman President, now in her second term, is often mentioned although she has never given an indication of her interest in the role. She is a tough and popular figure on the European diplomatic stage. She previously served as Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Finance and European Commissioner for Financial Programming and the Budget, giving her an impressive range of policy and institutional experience. Sometimes referred to as the "Iron Lady" or "Steel Magnolia", she is well regarded in the US and EU, but given her strong criticism of Russia's intervention in Ukraine and her leading role in securing EU sanctions, she is unlikely to be acceptable to the Kremlin.

Vesna Pusić, First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Croatia, is another strong woman candidate. Unlike Grybauskaitė, she has publicly expressed her willingness to run and is actively canvassing support. She is popular with European liberals. However, her candidacy currently lacks support at home. She has taken positive steps for reconciliation in the Balkan region but has not yet been tested on the wider international stage.

Almost all previous Secretaries-General have either been foreign ministers or senior UN officials. The only current contender who can claim both is Irina Bokova, the former Bulgarian Foreign Minister currently in her second elected term as head of UNESCO. She has secured the support of her own government and is probably the best placed Eastern European candidate. She is considered acceptable to the US, Russia and China, and is even thought to be Ban Ki-moon's favored successor. According to Edward Mortimer, Kofi Annan's former speechwriter, "If the Americans and Russians like her and she's a woman and an Eastern European, well that's ticking important boxes".

Of all the UN's regional groups, Eastern Europe presents the greatest difficulties given the divisive impact of the conflict in Ukraine and the poor state of relations between Russia and the West. If the five permanent members of the Security Council cannot reach agreement on a suitable candidate from Eastern Europe, it is likely that the net will be widened to include nominees from other parts. Here, too, there is an enviable selection of able women candidates to consider. I will be profiling some of them in my next blog.