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My Year with Helen

Helen Clark challenged sexism at the United Nations

Geoffrey P. Johnston

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark at the Ottawa Art Gallery on June 11, 2018. Photo credit: Geoffrey P. Johnston

Helen Clark could very well be the best Secretary-General that the troubled United Nations never had.

Indeed, when the United Nations Security Council cast aside the tough, intelligent, and reform-minded Clark in favour of an establishment candidate, the UN demonstrated that it was stubbornly committed to the flawed status quo instead of embracing much needed change.

The United Nations is supposed to represent the best of the community of nations, a forum in which member states work together to promote peace and international security, while advancing human development, including the rights of women and children.

Unfortunately, the world body has fallen far short on many files, especially when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable people in the world from sexual abuse, exploitation, and rape perpetrated by UN peacekeepers, UN affiliated aid workers, and even UN officials.

The United Nations needs to undergo a drastic change in culture and urgently requires transformative leadership. But that would mean the Secretary-General would have to speak truth to power, reform the often secretive and ineffective institution, and end the culture of impunity that permits sexism and abhorrent behaviour to go unpunished. In short, it is past time for a strong, capable woman to lead the United Nations and drag the archaic institution into the 21st century.

In 2016, the United Nations was presented with a golden opportunity to embrace change and reform. At that time, the UN embarked on a supposedly more open and transparent process to select the ninth Secretary-General from a large field of candidates, including a number of highly qualified women.

When the race began, Helen Clark, still working hard as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), was the odds on favourite to win the leadership. Indeed, women from around the world seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of ‘Aunty Helen’, as Clark is affectionately known, was campaigning hard for the top job at the UN, dominating the social media campaign, building support in the UN General Assembly, and visiting national capitals.

Campaign interview

During the summer of 2016, I conducted a telephone interview with Helen Clark as she campaigned for the UN’s top job. At that point in the campaign, she had already visited 13 of the 15 national capitals of the member states sitting on the UN Security Council—the body that would select the next Secretary-General. All the while, she continued doing her “day job” at UNDP, which she led from 2009 to 2017. “It’s busy,” she said in the interview of her hectic work and campaign schedules.

“I really hope that in making the selection, the UN Security Council members will look at what the needs of the UN are at this time,” said Clark of the imperative to reform the world body.

“This (selection process) needs a global search for the best person for the job,” Clark said of the need to dispense with the usual UN politicking that tends to determine who becomes Secretary-General. “And in my opinion, it has to be someone like me, who has leadership and strong advocacy skills, and who has run a country, and has run a major organization, and knows how to get results.”

In the interview, Clark made a strong case in favour of her candidacy, declaring that her tenure as prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008 had prepared her to become the world’s top diplomat. “I’ve led a country,” she said. “I’ve represented my country at numerous summit events, bilateral meetings, so I very much understand how member states think, actually. I think that’s rather important to have had that experience.”

Another selling point was Clark’s global network of contacts. “I’ve got a huge Rolodex, which has only been improved in the seven years of being at UNDP,” she said of her extensive list of contacts.

“As prime minister of a country like New Zealand, I was across all areas of policy,” Clark continued. “So when I came to UNDP, there really was nothing in the range of issues that UNDP worked on--whether it was climate change or legal aid--that I didn’t know something about in my years of experience.”

In addition, she said that leading UNDP gave her “global experience working with countries across all political systems.”

Despite leading a UN agency and being considered the third most powerful person at the world body, Clark cast herself as an agent of change during the 2016 campaign. “The UN is struggling in a number of areas at the moment,” Clark told me.

But for all its faults, Clark declared that the United Nations was too important not to fix. “If we didn’t have it, we’d have to re-invent it,” she said of the UN.

“We might as well re-invent it into being more effective than it’s perceived,” she added.

Helen Clark (centre) speaks with audience members at the Ottawa screening of My Year with Helen on June 11, 2018. Photo credit:  Geoffrey P. Johnston

Spring cleaning agenda

As a candidate, Helen Clark put forward a clearly articulated agenda. First, she pledged to continue to champion the development and environment agendas. “That’s been my bread and butter the last seven years,” she said.

Second, Clark aimed to change the UN’s “approach to peace and security, to try to get greater effectiveness.” She wanted to take a much more coherent and systemic view of peace and security issues. And this would have required: examining long-term development agendas; developing early warning systems and employing pro-active engagement when there are signs of conflict; and providing “ready support for mediation to try and sort out differences” before conflict erupts.

When a country falls into deep crisis and “everything has failed really,” said Clark, it becomes necessary to deploy peacekeepers. But too often, UN peacekeeping operations do not run smoothly. That’s why Clark said that the United Nations “need to tidy up the way peacekeeping operations are run.”

Third, Clark was committed to bolstering the “effectiveness and efficiency” of the UN. “Does it offer value for money to the member states?” she asked rhetorically in the 2016 interview. And she declared that the UN “needs a bit of spring cleaning.”

Sex abuse

During the interview, Clark acknowledged the sexual abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers. “Absolutely zero tolerance for any such behaviour,” she declared when asked about various sex abuse controversies.

“The training of troops being deployed has to have, very prominent in it, the expectations of impeccable behaviour with respect to civilians,” said Clark. “And that means upholding the human rights (of civilians)—not abusing or extorting them.”

Clark said that decisive action should be taken when abuses occur. “When there is the slightest sign that something has gone wrong, obviously the person concerned must be removed immediately and should be sent home,” she said. “And if his whole platoon or whatever is involved, they should go home.”

However, the story should not end there, said Clark. “At home,” she continued, “they are expected to be investigated” and prosecuted if there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing.

“If countries aren’t prepared to do that, then the UN needs to draw a red line, and say, ‘We can’t accept troops’ (from those nations),” she stated. “Because, we cannot have the image of the blue helmet continue to be tarnished by the gross, horrific behaviour that’s been in the headlines.”

What would Clark have done to ensure that UN bureaucrats act on sex abuse allegations involving peacekeepers? “Very strong signals need to be sent about that,” Clark replied. “If these allegations come in, they must immediately be investigated.”

At UNDP, when allegations of flawed or improper behaviour were made, Clark said that the agency took action right away. “We do not tolerate fraud, (or) sexual abuse,” she said in 2016. “We don’t shoot the messenger. We say, ‘What is behind this allegation?’”

Critique of the UN

From Clark’s perspective in 2016, the UN did a good job of leading on big development agenda issues, such as the environment. “But on the peace and security pillar,” she said, “I think it’s not seen to have done so well.”

“We need to innovate and review our approaches to crisis and conflict in the second decade of the 21st century,” she said. “We’re still acting as if we’re trying to prevent wars between nations and in the wake of World War II; it’s not the problem we’re primarily facing.”

Clark understood that in the 21st century, the primary job of UN peacekeepers isn’t to keep warring armies apart. “We’re faced with civil wars; we’re faced with terrorism and jihadism; and non-state actors of all kinds,” Clark explained.

“What has the UN got to say about how the tip over into chaos and anarchy and how to build back from these?” Clark asked rhetorically. And she pointed out that the UN has too many bureaucratic silos that don’t communicate well with each other.

“I think we need to be much more consciously linking the different pillars of our work across development, humanitarian, peace building, human rights, political—to make it add up to more than the sum of its parts,” she said of her plan to reorganize the world body.

Despite her qualifications, accomplishments and pro-active agenda, Helen Clark lost her bid to become the first woman Secretary-General. Instead, the Security Council selected an establishment candidate, a man. It was a bitter defeat for Clark and people hoping for a woman to finally break the glass ceiling at the United Nations.

My Year with Helen

Flash forward to June 11, 2018, Helen Clark is in Ottawa, the national capital of Canada, to receive an honorary doctorate from Carleton University and to attend a screening of the documentary film My Year with Helen, which chronicles her inspiring but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Secretary-General.

Before attending a gala celebration and screening of the film at the newly opened Ottawa Art Gallery, Clark agreed to an in-person interview with me at the nearby Lord Elgin Hotel.

Waiting in public sitting area in the lobby of the luxury hotel, I scanned the front entrance and three connecting hallways, looking for the former Kiwi prime minister and her entourage from the New Zealand High Commission.

Much to my surprise, Clark, wearing an understated but elegant pant suit, strode into the sitting area by herself, with no handlers or assistants to be seen. I walked over to her and introduced myself. After we exchanged pleasantries, she suggested we walk down the hall to the Starbucks Café, which is attached to the hotel.

We ordered our drinks and Clark picked out a table for us while I waited as the barista prepared our hot beverages. When I brought the drinks over to our table, Clark was checking emails on her smartphone, fielding requests for media interviews from the CBC. We sipped our drinks and briefly engaged in light conversation. (I drank green tea and Clark had a latte macchiato.)

With the pleasantries out of the way, it was time for a serious interview about Clark’s political career in New Zealand as well as her time at the UN. We also discussed other important issues, including sexism, refugees, and violence against schoolgirls living in conflict zones.

Trail blazer

Without a doubt, Helen Clark has always been a political trailblazer. She was the first woman to lead a political party to victory in a general election and become prime minister of New Zealand, serving as the country’s leader from 1999 to 2008. After she left national politics, Clark was ready for a new challenge and accepted an appointment as head of the United Nations Development Programme in 2009.

When Clark agreed to step in and run the troubled UN agency, the organisation was badly in need of reform. “The lack of transparency leapt out at me,” the no-nonsense New Zealander said of UNDP.

Clark quickly discovered that major donor states were not permitted to see the agency’s audit reports. “When you are putting hundreds of millions of dollars a year into an organisation, you like to see the audit reports,” she said.

Clark was determined to open up UNDP’s books, establishing “open portals for all the information.” And she pointed out that under her leadership, UNDP was rated as the most transparent aid organisation in the world two years in a row in the annual transparency index produced by Publish What You Fund, a non-profit organisation that pushes for and measures transparency.

Sexism in politics

What challenges did Clark face as a woman leader when she took over at UNDP? “I think UNDP was ready for a woman leader, just like New Zealand for ready for a woman prime minister,” Clark replied. “So I didn’t face particular challenges at UNDP.

During Clark’s tenure as Administrator, women performed important leadership roles at UNDP, including the job of Associate Administrator.

“I think the challenges often come at other points, like putting your hand up for Secretary-General. That was like going back thirty years in New Zealand to all the stereotypes about women in particular roles.”

Clark recalled that when she was the leader of the opposition in New Zealand, she faced “a barrage of prejudice,” because she was a woman. “People just didn’t like you,” she said of the blatant sexism. “They didn’t like your voice. Your teeth were crooked. They didn’t like your hair, your clothes. You were tough and aggressive, bossy. They didn’t like anything about you.”

She then told me a story about a male politician breaking down in tears as he spoke publicly about his child’s struggle with drug addiction. And the New Zealand media treated him with compassion.

“They can do it, and they are seen as human,” Clark said of male politicians shedding tears in public. “If women do it, we’re weak,” Clark said of the double standard women face.

“I had an experience where I was very badly verbally attacked in a sitting in a meeting house. And I had tears rolling down my cheeks. They still play that bit of film. They still play it. And play it pejoratively.”

Not one to give in or back down, Clark declared that she “crashed through every glass ceiling” in New Zealand politics. Indeed, she said that in her home country, the baby boomer generation eventually “cleared the road,” sweeping aside all barriers to female participation in politics.

Running for UN Secretary-General

During the 2016 campaign to select the ninth UN Secretary-General, Clark was considered to be the front-runner. And she was joined by several other credible female candidates in the race.

At that time, it seemed that change was in the air. Many diplomats at the United Nations indicated that it was time for a woman to lead the world body. Yet a man, Portugal’s Antonio Guterres, was ultimately selected for the top job. And all the talk of gender equality at the UN turned out to be hollow rhetoric.

Does Clark believe that her campaign to become Secretary-General fell short because some member states were not simply ready to be led by a woman? “I think there were so many different factors and strands around this,” Clark said of UN politics. “The bottom line is that it was geopolitics.”

Clark explained that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council wield vetoes, and anyone of them can scuttle a candidacy. “And I ended up with three of them striking the death blow,” she said with a bitter laugh.

Always direct and plain spoken, Clark observed that the position of Secretary-General is usually filled by someone who will not “speak truth to power” at the United Nations. “And when Secretary-Generals have exercised some muscle, like Kofi Annan who stood up very clearly on the issue of the (U.S.) invasion of Iraq, Great Powers who don’t agree with that can make life extremely miserable” for them, she said.

“I think if you then link that to gender, the truth is that women with strength somehow are more scary than men with strength. Because the stereotype has women with strength being aggressive and bossy and tough and so on,” Clark continued.

“Most member states of the UN have never experienced women’s leadership. And so they don’t really know what they are in for, and it’s a step into the unknown,” she said of the 2016 campaign.

However, Clark believes that when the UN selects the next Secretary-General, it will have to take that step into the unknown. “Because not then to elect a woman who can clearly do the job would be ridiculous,” she said.

Helen Clark (left) meets young women after a screening of My Year with Helen on June 11, 2018 at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo credit:  Geoffrey P. Johnston

UN legacy

We live in the era of civil conflicts and the massive displacement of people. As head of UNDP, Clark was at the forefront of transforming the way in which the United Nations responds to the needs of the refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), pivoting from only handing out humanitarian aid to also providing longer term development support known as resilience assistance.

Does Clark consider resilience assistance to be one of her legacy issues? “We, at UNDP, actually learned a lot from the response to the horrible Syrian war and became the foremost advocate for investing in displaced people and refugees and ways that went beyond humanitarian relief,” replied Clark. “Humanitarian relief is important but insufficient on its own.”

Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, “getting support for job creation” and “all the things that make life continue” for refugees and IDPs just did not happen in previous crises, she explained.

“I think if you stand back and look quite critically at international responses to displacement, for example from Somalia and Kenya, you are dealing with long term crises. And it’s not good enough just to say to people that this refugee camp will be your home, and that’s it and you’ve got to stay there. That crushes the spirit.

“I became so convinced, listening to people (refugees) talk about this, that we had to support job creation; we had to support movement outside camps; that receiving countries had to provide opportunity,” Clark said of the need to provide resilience assistance to the displaced.

A different kind of leader

Helen Clark would have been a different kind of leader for the United Nations. Unlike the men who have served as UN Secretary-General, she would not have repeated the same old tired diplomatic rhetoric and avoided uncomfortable but important discussions about the basic human needs of women and girls.

During our discussion at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Clark demonstrated yet again that she is always ready, willing and able to speak plainly and intelligently about how to ensure that women and girls are afforded human rights and dignity.

In civil conflicts in many parts of the world, girls are prevented from going to school. The very real threat of girls being abducted and raped by combatants on the way to school is enough for concerned parents to keep their girls at home. Although a new G7 initiative spearheaded by Canada commits 3.8 billion dollars over three years to helping girls access education in conflict situations and other difficult circumstances, it will not protect them from abduction, slavery, and sexual violence.

Given the rampant sexual violence that is perpetrated in conflict situations in many parts of the world, does Clark believe that it’s time to elect female leaders who will put sexual violence in conflict situations at the top of the international agenda instead of merely treating it as a side issue? “Yeah,” Clark replied without hesitation. “And it’s not a side issue,” she added with steel in her voice.

During her time as administrator of the UN Development Programme, she saw first-hand how refugee girls suffer and sacrifice when their families are displaced by conflict.

Clark recalled visiting a squatters’ camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, where she met a refugee family. And she learned that the 12 year old daughter worked in the fields for a dollar a day to support the family, which meant she did not go to school. “We’ve got to deal with these realities that families need money,” Clark said of the link between resilience assistance and girls’ education.

Clark also expressed concern about sexual violence. She said that it’s important to understand that civil conflicts, which “completely uproot people, destabilize, and throw off course the whole moral compass of communities,” are “associated with huge sexual degradation and attacks.”

Clark acknowledged that it’s important for girls living in conflict situations to go to school. However, the former New Zealand prime minister said that “it’s got to be safe for a girl to go to school.” And she talked about past “campaigns to buy girls bicycles, because if you can bike together as a group, you’re safer.”

When it comes to the safety of schoolgirls, Clark said that the G7’s pledge to allocate billions of dollars to girls’ education will not necessarily prevent sexual violence. “I think we need to think very practically about this,” she stated. “It’s not just about having the money for the school and the teacher, the girl has to be able to get there and back safely.”

In addition, Clark contends that education programs should take into consideration the special needs of a girl as she enters puberty. “She has to have access to a toilet and menstrual hygiene, because otherwise she’s not going to go to school,” Clark said with refreshing forthrightness.

“And there are so many taboos in parts of the world about that, where girls are isolated in huts when they are menstruating. They can’t go to school if they can’t go to the bathroom and have basic hygiene. So we need to think about that quite holistically. And I hope that the very well intentioned move by G7 can encompass all the factors that keep girls from school at the moment.”

Do men understand the hygiene needs of girls? “You don’t hear it,” replied Clark, “because they don’t like to talk about menstruation. No one talks in a frank way about this.”

Clark also pointed out that girls and women in refugee camps need a safe latrine that is nearby and well lite. “If you are going out of your tent or crude dwelling at night, you are putting your life at risk.”

Limo ride

As the interview at the Lord Elgin Hotel concluded, Helen Clark’s husband Peter Davis and an official from the New Zealand High Commission appeared in the hallway that connected the café to the lobby. The time had come to whisk the woman of the hour to the newly opened Ottawa Art Gallery for a gala held in Clark’s honour followed by a screening of My Year with Helen.

After polite introductions, Clark turned and graciously offered to give me a lift to the venue. I gratefully accepted. When we stepped outside, a limo and driver awaited us.

As the limo slowly made its way through late afternoon traffic, Clark, Davis and I chatted off the record about various international issues.

When we arrived at the modern Ottawa Art Gallery, I tried to blend into the background. But Clark and Davis were determined to make me feel welcome. As we ascended the stairs to an outdoor balcony, Davis and I chatted about Canadian winters.

The balcony was crowded with well-wishers, including members of nongovernmental humanitarian organizations, federal government officials, current and former UN staffers, and many star-struck young women hoping to meet Helen Clark.

At this point, I figured that Clark would be too busy to take any further notice of me. I was wrong. She grabbed my right arm and pulled me over a nearby table, insisting that I meet two of her close friends, a married couple who had, until recently, worked at the United Nations. Even later in the evening, Clark still had not forgotten about me, bringing a UN humanitarian worker over to meet me.

My Year with Helen

After the reception on the balcony, we moved indoors and into an auditorium for a screening of My Year with Helen. And the venue was filled to capacity, with people of different races, ages, and sexual orientation. Although men were represented, the majority of the audience was made up of women. And many young women lined up at the end of the evening for a chance to meet Clark and have their pictures taken with her.

The documentary, directed by New Zealand’s Gaylene Preston, reveals the blatant sexism that pervades the highest levels of the United Nations. And the film evoked strong responses from many female audience members during the question and answer session with Clark that followed the screening.

Listening to the audience’s questions, I came to the conclusion that the women in the audience identified with Clark, because they, too, have experienced pervasive sexism in their own careers and personal lives.

That sexism is a fact of life for women was underscored by an exchange that I witnessed in the auditorium. As I took my seat just before the film was about to begin, an all too familiar conversation was playing out. Beside me was a young professional woman from Africa. And next to her was an older man of South Asian origin.