The women ambassadors reshaping the UN Security Council

In the past 77 years, only 26 female ambassadors have served on the top UN body. Now there are five at once – and they are making their mark

A Security Council meeting at UN headquarters in New York. AP
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The UN Security Council, an emblem of global decision-making, for many years had a conspicuous absence of women.

But this year, five female ambassadors are successively helping to lead the world body's top institution: Lana Nusseibeh of the UAE, Barbara Woodward of the UK, Linda Thomas-Greenfield of the US, Switzerland’s Pascale Baeriswyl and Malta’s Vanessa Frazier.

"It represents a great opportunity to think about leadership”, Ms Baeriswyl told The National.

The first woman to serve as state secretary of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, Ms Baeriswyl highlighted that the common thread binding all five diplomats is their “history of being pioneers”.

In October 2000, the Security Council adopted a resolution recognising the importance of women’s participation in conflict resolution and political decision-making – two of the issues the body deals with the most.

The council took well over a decade to fully enforce its own resolution and witness a notable transformation: six out of the 15 council members were women in 2014 – a stark contrast to 1993, when Madeleine Albright of the US was the sole female diplomat at the table.

Ms Albright's tenure in the early 1990s left an enduring impact on the realm of women in diplomacy.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield, who was nominated by President Joe Biden as ambassador to the UN in January 2021, regards Ms Albright as her “mentor”.

“When I was nominated for this role, she [Madeleine Albright] told me that during her tenure on the Security Council, she formed a group of women called the Group of Seven, or G7,” she said.

The late US secretary of state’s reference did not pertain to the Group of Seven, an alliance of affluent nations representing the world's most advanced economies, but to an informal group of UN women ambassadors.

“And so, when I got to New York and I found that there were only five women on the Security Council, I call Madeleine and lamented that we had lost ground,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.

“And she said, 'No, there were only seven women in the entire General Assembly!'

“We have made progress. But there’s still more to be made.”

Progress at the UN will hopefully also ripple outward, with Ms Woodward saying that effective leadership transcends gender barriers.

As she presides over the council this month, Ms Woodward told The National that “the issue we face [around the world] is the lack of women in leadership roles within government, business, the public sector and non-governmental organisations”.

During its two-year council term, including its presidency in June, the UAE has placed great importance on ensuring the representation of women's voices, particularly in matters of peace and security.

Ms Nusseibeh, the UAE's first female ambassador at the UN and co-chairwoman of the Informal Expert Group on Women, Peace and Security, said women have become more central to the discussion.

UAE's ambassador to the UN decries plight of Afghan women – video

UAE's ambassador to the UN decries plight of Afghan women

UAE's ambassador to the UN decries plight of Afghan women

With women historically comprising less than 10 per cent of the permanent representatives on the Security Council, Ms Nusseibeh stressed that “strides towards more inclusion have given council discussions greater weight and credibility”.

“As the council further integrates the perspectives of women and girls across its agenda, I think we will continue to see a paradigm shift in the way we understand drivers of conflict and the critical role that women and girls play as active agents of peace in conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding,” she said.

Ms Thomas-Greenfield pointed to the inclusion of issues on the agenda that amplify the representation of women on the council.

“We ensure that there are women speakers who come to brief the council,” she said. “It’s not that men don’t do it, but they don’t do it enough.

“As women, we’re aware of who's not in the room and constantly looking for opportunities to raise women up.”

The US diplomat believes that women have a heightened ability to empathise with the testimonies of those who endure conflict, sexual violence and famine.

“We feel the pain of those people,” she said. “And if you feel the pain, you feel the commitment, you feel the urgency of doing something about the pain, and that’s what I have done my entire career.”

Ms Frazier, the first woman to serve as Malta’s envoy to the UN, said all of the female permanent representatives currently serving on the council “are committed to providing a platform for civil society perspectives and women’s human rights defenders”.

She acknowledged that while a country's policy priorities drive decision-making on the council, individual backgrounds, personalities, styles, regional groups and gender can also shape dynamics.

In the last 77 years, a mere 26 female ambassadors have served on the Security Council. Ms Frazier said that a minimum representation of 30 per cent is required for a meaningful “gender perspective” to emerge.

Updated: July 04, 2023, 2:01 PM