Who could lead the United Nations next? This Caribbean climate leader makes diplomats ‘jump’ with excitement

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Asked last week if she will run to become the United Nations’ next Secretary General, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados gave a thumbs up, smiled, and walked away. Unofficially, however, UN insiders say she’s a likely front-runner.

The 2026 selection process is still far off, but talk of who is best-positioned to win the powerful job has already begun.

Historically, there has been a geographical rotation for the position, so it seems likely the next UN leader will be from the Latin America and the Caribbean region – and many advocates say it is time for a female candidate, after 78 years of only male leaders.

In the hallways and backrooms of the United Nations headquarters in New York, Mottley is one of several names being floated as likely contenders. Two sources said former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos – a Nobel peace Prize laureate – will launch a campaign soon, though a representative for Santos denies it.

Among others, Argentinian diplomat Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is also a recurring name in discussions of who might succeed current UN Secretary-General António Guterres, as are Alicia Bárcena, Mexico’s foreign affairs secretary; Rebeca Grynspan, a high-level UN official and former vice president of Costa Rica; and Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, a former president of the UN General Assembly and former minister of Ecuador.

But it is the charismatic and outspoken Mottley whose name often generates the most excitement. Though Mottley has not yet said she will run, one UN diplomat said “I would jump up and down” with excitement if she did.

Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a neighboring island, said she would have his vote if she chose to campaign.

“I think she would make a great Secretary-General,” he said, “Whatever she does, I will support her.”

Could Mottley run?

Mottley became prime minister of Barbados in 2018 and won a second term in a landslide election four years later.

Internationally, she has been noticed for cutting her country’s post-colonial ties to the British monarchy, and for her powerful rhetoric on slavery reparations, climate change, and the need to reform global financial institutions through the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral banks.

Mottley does not mince her words when it comes to big powers, either. In her address to the General Assembly in last week, she asked: “How is it possible for Chevron and the European Union to access the oil and gas of Venezuela, but the people of the Carribean cannot access it at the 35 percent discount offered by the people of Venezuela?”

In 2022, Mottley spearheaded the Bridgetown Initiative, a political plan to reform the global financial architecture and development finance to be more equitable, particularly in the face of climate crisis. The initiative would change the way money is loaned to developing countries and set up a special emergency fund for climate disasters.

In April, Mottley also joined forces with current UN chief Guterres and announced a revamping of her venture, called Bridgetown 2.0, putting forward six development priorities for development finance that will be discussed on the world stage at the annual meeting of the IMF-World Bank group in October, COP28 in November and the Summit of the Future in 2024.

Many diplomats in New York City and outside said they believe in Mottley’s potential to represent issues affecting the developing world as leader of the UN – but also in her capacity to bring her unique style of leadership to the role.

”I don’t think I recall another leader in recent history other than Obama that had the attention of the international community like she does,” a UN diplomat said.

Still, some warn that that she is taking political risks. Considering the initiative significantly challenges the status quo for international finance, UN expert Richard Gowan of the International Crisis Group says that Mottley has to carefully plan her next steps.

Other observers point out that trying to upend existing systems risks angering at least one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who hold a final word on the Secretary-General selection process.

Mottley’s office did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Fighting for a woman at the helm

The UN’s next Secretary General would take office in January 2027. Is four years too early to start talking about who the next leader of the organization will be? For some, it’s a necessary discussion to have for an institution that is at its turning point, as it grapples with criticism and geopolitical paralysis in the powerful Security Council.

“I don’t think it’s early at all,” Elina Valtonen, Finland’s foreign minister, said, “It’s very important to start discussing that because I think it’s also very much a question of what the future should look like for the UN and the Security Council.”

Valtonen and others also say that the time for the organization to have its first woman leader was yesterday. “This position should very much be merit-based,” she said, “but I think it’d be very remarkable if again, it’s not a woman who is chosen.”

The selection process has long been secretive, but opened up a bit in 2016. To be considered, candidates need to first be nominated by a country, usually their own, and then recommended by the Security Council to the General Assembly.

During the last selection process in 2016, a group of countries pledged to only bring forward women candidates – an initiative is currently being revived for the next selection process. In 2016, thirteen candidates ran, seven of whom were women. But Guterres – a Portuguese diplomat long considered the frontrunner for the role – was ultimately elected.

“There’s always lots of men that want to run,” said Ben Donaldson, head of campaigns at the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom.

This year, he said, “I’m hoping the message is coming through loud and clear from the majority of states and from civil society that no state should be putting forward male candidates. We are all working to increase the stigma around this, hopefully we can nip it in the bud.”

Susana Malcorra, a former candidate in the 2016 Secretary General elections, and cofounder and president of advocacy group Global Women Leaders Voices, is also working to make sure the political pressure will bring female candidates forward in the next cycle.

“It’s not so much about talking about a Julie or Anne, or Mary, it is more about talking about a Madame Secretary General as a general proposition, and then making sure that we pave the way to get there,” she said.

But not everyone agrees with the effort.

Dennis Francis, the president of the 78th UN General Assembly who is from Trinidad and Tobago, doesn’t believe men should refrain from running. “I believe that men should run next time around as I believe women should run in their numbers,” he said.

“Because what I would want to happen is for a woman to win in those circumstances, not from a field of women. That would be the wrong message.”

And with the powerful Security Council is already frozen on a number of issues since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine, it’s hard to imagine its members ultimately finding a consensus on any single candidate.

”All I have to say is grab your popcorn,” Julia Maciel, a diplomat from Paraguay, said.

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