The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, Episode 3, with Noeleen Heyzer

Nov 12, 2020

Noeleen Heyzer, former executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, discuss the role of women in the UN over the years. Heyzer speaks about the Beijing Women's Conference; Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security; and the prospects for increasing gender equality in the UN system in the decades to come.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Hello, and welcome to the third installment of Looking Back to Look Forward, a four-part interview series that the Carnegie Council is producing this fall to mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. My name is Adam Read-Brown, and I'm the editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council's quarterly peer-reviewed journal, published by Cambridge University Press.

This series builds on the work of the Fall 2020 edition of Ethics & International Affairs. That issue features a special collection of nine essays on "The United Nations at 75," organized and guest-edited by Dr. Margaret P. Karns. To explore the content in that issue, we encourage you to visit

For this third episode, I am once again honored to introduce Dr. Karns as our host. Dr. Karns is professor emerita of political science at the University of Dayton, and since 2015 she has been a visiting professor in the global governance and human security Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has published widely on UN peacekeeping, post-conflict peace building, global governance, and the future of the UN system.

I should also note that in addition to being the guest editor for our special issue, Dr. Karns contributed a co-authored essay in our Fall issue with Kirsten Haack and Jean-Pierre Murray, titled, "The UN at 75: Where are the Women in the United Nations Now?"

Today Dr. Karns is joined by Dr. Noeleen Heyzer to discuss this very topic, the role and position of women at the United Nations. Dr. Heyzer has held numerous high-level positions within the UN system, and we are delighted to have her here with us today.

With that, I will hand things off to Dr. Karns to get things started. Enjoy the discussion.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you, Adam, for that very nice introduction. It has been my pleasure to work with you in guest-editing this special issue of Ethics & International Affairs on "The United Nations at 75," and in conjunction with the inclusion of my own co-authored essay on "Where are the Women in the UN Now?" to interview Dr. Noeleen Heyzer of Singapore.

Between 1994 and 2007 Noeleen was the key person at the United Nations in pushing for issues of particular concern to women as executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, known as UNIFEM, and she was the first executive director from the Global South. Noeleen was a central figure in the planning and execution of the Beijing Women's Conference. She broadened UNIFEM's activities with work on women's human rights and violence against women and played a critical role in pushing the UN Security Council to adopt Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security.

In her 13 years at UNIFEM she also laid groundwork for the larger entity that became UN Women in 2010. Noeleen herself, however, went on to serve as an under-secretary-general, an executive secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and in 2013–2014 as special advisor in Timor-Leste. She is currently a member of the secretary-general's high-level advisory board on mediation.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Heyzer has also served on numerous boards and won numerous awards including the Dag Hammarskjöld Medal in 2004, awarded by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Sweden in memory and honor of the former UN secretary-general.

As it turns out, we are not only celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations this year. We are also marking the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Women's Conference and the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council's passage of Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, and Dr. Noeleen Heyzer played a role in each of these three events during her time as executive director of UNIFEM.

In proposing that I interview her for this series, I could think of no person who would be better to speak about "Where are the women in the UN now?" and what it has taken to get to this point.

Thank you so much, Noeleen, for agreeing to this interview.

NOELEEN HEYZER: Thank you very much, Professor Karns. It is a joy to be with you again, and many thanks to the Carnegie Council for making this conversation possible.

MARGARET KARNS: António Guterres, the current UN secretary-general, has earned high marks for setting and achieving his goal of gender parity in the UN's senior management and improving the recruitment of women and gender balance in the UN's professional staff more generally. Yet, as you know all too well, it has taken a very long time for the United Nations to get to this point. What in your view have been some of the principle obstacles, and who and what have finally made a difference?

NOELEEN HEYZER: Peggy, since we are celebrating UN 75, the best place to start is really the birth of the United Nations and the UN Charter on how best to create a new world order after the devastation of the Second World War. It was a very transformational moment.

The UN Charter in its preamble ensures "the equal rights of men and women to promote social progress and better standards of life and larger freedom." It starts with "We the peoples" and it promises every individual in every country an equal claim to dignity, respect, and happiness based on freedom from want and freedom from fear. These are all wonderful aspirations and norms agreed to by all member states, but there have not been enough practical changes on the ground and in our institutions, and the norms remain unfulfilled promises.

What are the principal obstacles, and who and what have made a difference? Let me be very blunt. The principal obstacles are systematic gender barriers shaped by patriarchal power with deep historical roots. It is about how power continues to be unequally distributed and how women have continued to experience patriarchal power in the institutions of member states and in the United Nations itself. This has resulted in the devaluation of women's work, the concentration of women in low-pay, low-status employment, the erosion of women's legal rights and voices in decision-making, and in multiple forms of violence.

But what has made the largest difference? The tenacity, the courage, and the legacy of women engaged in the thought and practice of transforming societies and institutions to achieve equal rights and dignity for women. They have taken to the frontlines of change to give women the right to vote, to decent working conditions, to quality education, and to equal rights of citizenship. In fact, four women out of the 160 delegates in San Francisco, supported by civil society women's activism, provided the leadership to include the equal rights of women in the UN Charter. They wanted to ensure that women would no longer be undervalued, undereducated, overworked, and underpaid, especially when member states were forging an inclusive, rule-based order for the security of big and small nations and countries coming out of colonialism were finding new pathways for development.

To address the widespread gender inequality in legal, social, and economic rights, women had to organize and mobilize to fight hard to be heard, to put their ideas of development and equality on the UN agenda, and to hold their countries accountable. In fact, the four global UN Conferences on Women in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing with the theme "Equality, Development, and Peace" provided the platform for action and catalyzed change in the situation of women in country after country. Many decades of advocacy and women's leadership have resulted in the global recognition of the contribution of women to development and the costs of gender discrimination to countries and to institutions themselves.

The UN secretary-general is the global guardian of our shared values and shared vision as embedded in the UN Charter with the promise to deliver a people-centered multilateral system in the four pillars of peace and security, development, human rights, and political governance. UN Secretary-General António Guterres as a leader and as a person understands deeply the working and intertwining of the two major historical forces of discrimination and inequality—colonialism and patriarchy—and the importance of changing power relationships. He has spoken very strongly about how gender inequality harms everyone when policies are made through the eyes of half the population and prevents us from benefiting from the experiences and intelligence of half of humanity.

He has called himself a feminist and has earned high praise for major actions to achieve full gender parity and even more in the senior management and appointing women leaders to head traditionally male arenas, for example, in the Department of Political and Peace-Building Affairs, and also appointments of the special representatives of the secretary-general (SRSGs) in difficult countries, like in Afghanistan recently.

His actions must also be seen in the changing context, when for the first time in the history of the United Nations seven women leaders were also contesting for the top job in 2016, and many wanted to see a woman elected as secretary-general, including the Women SG Campaign of civil society.

However, he has also faced some resistance from the traditional bastions of the UN bureaucracy and from some member states that are opposed to women's equality and rights or are using them in the context of big-power rivalry.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you very much.

I wonder if you can articulate a little bit for our viewers why it matters how many women are employed in the UN's professional service and particularly in its leadership. How does it matter outside the United Nations?

NOELEEN HEYZER: Peggy, this matters a lot. It is important to understand how different women leaders in the United Nations have brought transformation in the system through their understanding of the grounded realities of women's lives, what needed to change, and their relationship with women civil society, what I call the "inside-outside" relationships.

By its nature the United Nations is a hierarchical intergovernmental organization where mainly male government leaders make decisions that affect the directions and functioning of the organization. But at the same time, the United Nations has a very strong history of mobilization and partnership based on the values and the moral authority of the UN Charter. It has opened new possibilities, created spaces, and built alliances with "we the peoples" to bring about social change and accountability, especially with women and civil society.

But the success of women leaders in the system was actually knowing how to reclaim the convening power and the authority of the United Nations to mobilize the power of constituencies and knowing how to use top-down and bottom-up leadership to change the rules of the game when they did not work for women. In short, women leaders in the United Nations have engaged civil society and governments and have the experience of cooperating to build an inclusive multilateralism from the ground up, mobilizing to establish new agendas but also new practices based on the UN Charter as we the peoples imagine the world anew.

Let me give you a few very concrete examples of the people who I know and I have worked with. Helvi Sipilä from Finland was the first woman—and I am sure you know her, Peggy—to hold the position of UN assistant secretary-general in 1972. She used her position to organize the first-ever World Conference on Women in 1975, when she was the secretary-general, and this opened up new spaces for dialogue with women everywhere.

Nafis Sadik, a dear friend from Pakistan and a wonderful leader whom I admire, was appointed in 1987 as the first woman from the developing world to head an operational fund of the United Nations as the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She was instrumental in addressing the reproductive health and needs of women on the ground and incorporating their voices into population policies and programs internationally. When she became the secretary-general of the International Conference on Population and Development, commonly called the ICPD, she brought a whole new perspective and narrative to population and development issues.

Both their work fed into the fourth World Conference on Women and the Beijing Platform for Action, seen as the landmark global action plan for women's empowerment until today, as we celebrate Beijing+25.

It is important, however, not just to have women leaders in the UN system itself but also to have women as diplomatic representatives of the member states. For example, several women ambassadors were so inspired by UNIFEM's global videoconference highlighting the concrete work of the UN Trust Fund to End Violence against Women that I started in UNIFEM that they immediately took leadership in the 1999 UN General Assembly to establish the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. So on December 17, 1999 the General Assembly unanimously agreed that the November 25 will be the International Day to End Violence against Women. So every year women worldwide use November 25 until Human Rights Day on December 10 to organize for greater efforts to end violence against women.

Another example is in the area of peace and security. Navi Pillay from South Africa made a huge difference, Peggy, when she was a UN-appointed judge and president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Navi understood the criminal and the politicized nature of rape in the Rwanda genocide and upheld the need for accountability. With women's organizations, we work together to address sexual violence against women as a weapon of genocide. Her judgment in 1998 was historic as it set precedents not only for the Rwanda Tribunal but for rape and sexual violence to be prosecuted under international law as an act of genocide and of crime against humanity.

Maybe I could even share about my role as executive director of UNIFEM, and one of my proudest achievements was working with the Security Council and women from conflict-affected countries on the women, peace, and security agenda that resulted in Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000. This marked the beginning of the women, peace, and security agenda in the Security Council thanks to Namibia using its presidency in such a strategic manner.

Security Council 1325 consists of four pillars: prevention, protection, participation, peace-building, and recovery. It was a major mindset change and a new paradigm for peace and security because it broke the silos for the first time between human rights, development, peace and security, and addressed sexual violence as a war crime, and promoted women's rights to inheritance, health, education, and employment as critical for sustaining peace and in rebuilding of society. Basically it shifted the idea of security as military security to human security. It supported women's meaningful participation in peace and recovery to overturn underlying inequalities and to shift to a future that upholds justice, restores confidence, and transforms institutions for greater peace and security. This year we are indeed celebrating the 20th anniversary of this resolution.

In short, many women leaders in the United Nations have brought changes to policies and actions that people thought were impossible or far too radical.

Besides the examples I shared, women pioneers in the United Nations have acted as change agents, and they have focused on the establishment and implementation of legal frameworks. The best one actually is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action as we have mentioned, Security Council Resolution 1325, but also the gender perspectives to the Millennium Development Goals and currently the Sustainable Development Goals.

Equipped with these international frameworks, women worked with a wide variety of partners, including men, to advance their implementation. So it is not just about setting up these frameworks; it is actually about implementation. And they focus on the equality of voice in decision-making to contribute to the development process. They demanded equality in economic and social opportunities including closing the gender wage gap. They fought for equality in law, especially related to family law and women's property and inheritance rights. They worked hard to end violence against women at home and in the workplace, advocated for equality and better access to health, food and education, demanded social support for women's caregiving roles, and investment in transport, water and energy infrastructure to reduce women's workload and time poverty.

So today many more countries are adopting laws and policies to protect and promote women's rights including access to decent employment. It is unfinished business but one started by the collective actions of women across institutions and borders, and they have created real change because they demanded implementation and accountability, and they worked hard to achieve it in all the different ways that we have discussed.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you for that rich narration of the changes.

I'm curious that at the same time in which you and the staff at UNIFEM and others were working on these various issues whether there was also a focus on trying to increase women's presence in the professional staff of the United Nations itself at various levels, including lower and middle levels so that there would "be a pipeline," as we often say, toward higher-level leadership positions.

NOELEEN HEYZER: This is a very important question, Peggy, because it basically tried to recreate and to generate new blood in the UN system. So, yes, definitely, I have acted for a greater women's presence in the UN system, but I have to admit that I acted out of the usual bureaucratic box. I basically made use of UNIFEM's mandate to be an innovator and a catalyst for change, and I took that very seriously.

So when I was the executive director of UNIFEM, this was at a pivotal historical moment after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the United Nations opened new opportunities to connect community conversation with global dialogues, to give voice to the voiceless, and to defend the defenseless. It provided the platform for cooperation with governments and civil society, connecting with one another to find ways to improve their societies further towards equality, development, and peace. Especially in the age of globalization after the Cold War people wanted a fair and an inclusive globalization.

The United Nations itself was undergoing reforms, and I wanted to ensure that the multilateral system worked for women and gave voice to the realities, insights, and strategies of women frequently ignored by the decision-makers and by the multilateral system itself. So it was the opportunity to connect aspirations of local people to the global institutions and to the international community.

But to be of value, we had to show that we knew not just how to strengthen women's mobilization, which all my staff knew, but how to promote strong collaboration between the women's movement and the United Nations as a system and as member states to implement the commitments that were coming out of all of the various UN conferences.

Real change could happen only if we could harness the full potential of the UN system on the ground. This required new ways of leading and learning in order to build trust and to break through the gridlocks and turf wars that were quite common in the UN system. I therefore worked to strengthen UNIFEM as an experienced global advocate and knowledge provider, a connector of people and processes from global to local, a valued resource for the resident coordinator system, and this was actually a newly established system under the UN reform at that time.

I recruited UNIFEM regional program advisors who were skilled in forging a closer working relationship with the resident coordinators as we make the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action an integral part of the UN Development Assistance Framework and the country strategies, which was another part of the UN reform agenda at that time.

The implementation and review of these strategies was not dependent on UNIFEM. Instead it required building a unified alliance of the different UN agencies working at country level to devise coherent strategies for countries' implementation.

As our resource base grew from 10 million to over 120 million by the time I left, I established regional offices to replace single UNIFEM regional advisors and recruited quality teams of highly committed and skilled women, many of whom came from the women's movement, from top universities and think tanks. Many had provided leadership during the various UN conferences and were substantively and politically very strong. I wanted to make sure that the United Nations now had experienced professionals who knew how to build alliances with governments and local women, supporting and empowering them to participate meaningfully in the implementation of recommendations from the UN conferences, turning government commitments into real possibilities for progress.

This was a very difficult process as UNIFEM was administered by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which had frozen external recruitment while it went through reforms and downsizing. I was asked to recruit from the lists of "floaters," and I fully rejected this as it was a wrong fit and I was very clear about the kind of team leadership and organizational capacities that I wanted to develop. But after very hard meetings and negotiations, the director of UNDP human resources agreed to an arrangement that worked for all parties.

So we established specialized positions with contracts limited to UNIFEM, and this arrangement allowed me to recruit excellent women and men, and gave me basically the freedom to also recruit in the various regions. It made it possible for me to attract top professionals like Joanne Sandler, who became my deputy; Diane Olson, who led the first "Progress of the world's women," an annual assessment which I established; and Anne Marie Goetz, who became our director for the governance, peace, and security program. Several of the women I recruited provided new blood to the UN bureaucracy and some eventually became UN resident coordinators as well. Of course, there were many people who helped to make the United Nations more effective through better recruitment of the right people in the right places.

I must add that our work on Security Council 1325 significantly increased women's leadership in the peace and security sector. In 2000, when I addressed the Security Council, there was not a single woman secretary-general special representative (SRSG) serving in the UN system.

But against the advice of some very senior UN colleagues I also highlighted the need to hold the UN itself accountable, starting with recruiting women as SRSGs to conflict-affected countries. Today the number of senior women leaders in peace and security within the UN system has been on a tremendous rise from SRSGs and special envoys of the secretary-general to the first female commander of a peacekeeping mission to more women in peacekeeping, and even member states coming up with Security Council Resolutions to promote this as in the case of Indonesia recently. In addition, the position of the rank of an under-secretary-general on Sexual Violence in Conflict was established in 2009, and Margot Wallström, the foreign minister of Sweden, was appointed as its first SRSG.

But I must say that from my experience there was a downside because no matter how hard we worked or how we grew, we were not afforded the status of other UN organizations. This was at a time when the United Nations was not as gender-sensitive as it is today.

Instead, in the context of UN reform, in about 2006, there was a very powerful woman minister from a donor country who exerted pressure on UNDP to fold UNIFEM into UNDP. In the struggle to maintain our independence, which we did, we realized that there was an overall problem with the gender architecture and UNIFEM's ability to effectively fulfill its mandate in the future. This was true even though we had grown our resource base nearly tenfold.

Many people have characterized the four entities that became UN women as tiny and fractured, but that was actually quite far from the truth. We were fragmented but not tiny. UNIFEM grew significantly every year from 1995 and brought the vast majority of financial resources to the new entity. Our problem was our institutional status.

Our preference was a fully independent UNIFEM, but I knew that given the political environment and focus on UN reform there would only be appetite to create a stronger entity for gender equality if there was a merger, so my team and I agreed that consolidation was a shorter route to a more powerful entity for women's rights, building on the strong foundations of UNIFEM.

Along with civil society, we seized the UN reform agenda in 2006 to push for a structure that will have an under-secretary-general for gender equality as the head of a joint organization for women's rights that would also bring together the normative and the operational functions. So today we have UN Women, and it is regarded as a poster child of the 2006 reform agenda with the ability to end the turf wars among gender entities and a seat at the highest level of the UN decision-making table.

MARGARET KARNS: Thank you for telling that story of the background on the creation of UN Women. They recently have had two very strong heads of UN Women to date to make a strong mark in that respect.

Are there things that UN Women has undertaken that you think have been particularly helpful in forwarding the agenda that in some sense you started back in the mid-1990s?

NOELEEN HEYZER: I think that some of the work on ending violence against women has continued. Generation equality is wonderful because it is involving a new generation of women leaders and young men, so it is basically engaging youth. They are very much in the forefront of looking at how can we make a COVID-19 response as well as understanding the impact of the COVID-19 crisis from a gender perspective, and they have worked also very hard on trying to establish a greater understanding of our digital world, so basically taking on some of the major challenges in the 21st century.

Of course, what is wonderful now is the fact that you will have these entities that are all merged together so that they are building on the work of the Division for the Advancement of Women when it was Secretariat of the Commission on the Status of Women, and therefore really trying to revitalize that commission would be absolutely critical. Of course, with UNIFEM's work, we have established many of the regional offices and the ground presence, and UN Women has built on that.

The International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, which used to be a small entity focusing on research and training, now can actually flourish because research and data is so important, and having the understanding of big data is absolutely critical.

So I think they are doing well. The most important thing is that they have a seat at the highest table and are part of the secretary-general senior management.

MARGARET KARNS: I would ask one final question in this regard. There have been reports of pushback within the secretariat, and clearly one of the challenges that the secretary-general faces is the push from particularly developing countries in the Global South to ensure geographic distribution in the awarding of high-level positions. To what extent do you think these two factors—pushback against the gender-balance strategy that the secretary-general is pushing and this concern about geographic distribution—may make it difficult to continue to broaden the percentages of women in the professional staff more broadly? In the leadership, he has done very well, but obviously the concern is across the professional staff ranks more broadly to ensure that you have that pipeline in the future.

NOELEEN HEYZER: You are right by saying that at the leadership level it is going on very well, which is extremely important.

It's not going to be easy. I heard from one of my male colleagues from a developing country, who said that one of the problems is that they cannot get the male pipeline into the system because women are occupying these positions.

I said, "Thank you very much, but how many years and decades have we been pushed aside?"

Anyway, there will be these kinds of tensions, but I think the secretary-general is very, very committed. We have a secretary-general and a team that is very committed. Resistance is part of the process, and if we are not touching the painful spots of resistance, we will not be making real changes. So I think we are prepared for that.

MARGARET KARNS: I suppose the next question is: Will we succeed in having a woman secretary-general the next time around?

NOELEEN HEYZER: I think the time is ripe. Just look at what has happened with the vice-president of the United States. I think all these are wonderful glass ceilings to break. I think we have to be very careful that while we break the glass ceilings we are not stuck with sticky floors.

MARGARET KARNS: Very good. Perhaps it might even be a woman from Singapore.

NOELEEN HEYZER: Oh, no. I doubt it. It is a time for Latin America, Peggy.

MARGARET KARNS: The Eastern Europeans feel they were passed over in 2016, so there will be the geographic balance issues coming around again.

Thank you so much, Noeleen. This has been a fascinating interview, and we very much appreciate you giving your time for this.

NOELEEN HEYZER: Thank you, Peggy. Lovely to be with you.

ADAM READ-BROWN: Thank you, Peggy, and thank you so much, Dr. Heyzer, for joining us.

This conversation has been wonderful. It has once again been between our host, Dr. Margaret Karns, and her guest, Noeleen Heyzer, as part of this Ethics & International Affairs series The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, which is produced by the Carnegie Council.

Once again, my name is Adam Read-Brown. I am the editor of the Council's journal, Ethics & International Affairs. If you haven't already, be sure to check out the first two episodes in this series, the first with David Malone on the Security Council and the legacy of the United Nations at 75, and with Dr. Maria Ivanova on environmental efforts at the United Nations.

In the next and final episode of this series, Dr. Karns will speak with Bertrand Ramcharan about human rights at the United Nations. For more information about this and other Carnegie Council programs, visit, and for more information about the Council's journal, including our recent special issue on the United Nations at 75, visit

Thanks for joining us today. We really hope you enjoyed the program.

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