Who Should be the Next UN Leader? PART 3 - Alicia Bárcena.

By Felix Dodds and Chris Spence

First published on Wednesday 17th of April by Inter-Press Service here 

With current UN Secretary-General António Guterres set to step down in 2026, who is in the running to replace him? In this seven-part series, Felix Dodds and Chris Spence reveal who might be nominated and assess their chances.

The potential candidates include Amina J. Mohammed (Nigeria), Mia Motley (Barbados), Alicia Barcena (Mexico), Maria Fernanda Espinosa (Ecuador), Rebeca Grynspan (Costa Rica) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile). These are names that have come up in conversations with UN insiders and other experts. All six would offer skills and experiences we believe would be valuable in these fast-paced, uncertain times.

APEX, North Carolina / DUBLIN, Ireland, Apr 17 2024 (IPS) - A third possible candidate for UN Secretary-General is Alicia Bárcena. Mexico’s current Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Bárcena boasts a professional background that is both broad and deep.

Having originally trained as a biologist, she subsequently completed a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard University and has held several important roles within the Mexican government and at the United Nations. Her current role as Mexico’s Foreign Secretary, to which she was appointed in July 2023, marks just the latest relevant role in a long and distinguished career.

Internationally, her 14-year stint as head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) from 2008-2022 was the most recent example of her involvement in the UN, which dates back to when she served on the Secretariat for the Rio Earth Summit in 1992.

It also led her to the Earth Council in Costa Rica. A non-profit organization tasked with follow up to the agreements reach in Rio, Bárcena was its Founding Director in the 1990s.

One of the Earth Council’s major achievements was the development of the Earth Charter, an international declaration setting out values and principles for a sustainable, peaceful, and just world.

Bárcena’s subsequent work with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and UN Development Programme (UNDP)—which focused on sustainable development and environmental engagement—reinforced her sense that complex challenges require connection and cooperation among many stakeholders.

Bárcena later served as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s chief of staff at UN headquarters in New York. Under Annan’s successor, Ban Ki-moon, she was promoted to Under-Secretary-General for Management. It was during her years in New York that she helped create a UN Ethics Office and set up a whistleblower protection policy and rules on financial disclosures for senior officials.

She also began work on the UN Capital Plan to refurbish and fix UN headquarters. It was during these years that she gained access to the highest levels of decision-making in the organization. As a result of this experience, her knowledge of the internal workings of the UN in New York and elsewhere is almost unmatched.

As head of ECLAC from 2008-2022, she continued to pioneer greater transparency, public participation and justice in decision making, particularly on environmental issues. This culminated in 2021 with ratification of the region-wide Escazú Agreement by more than two dozen countries from Latin America and the Caribbean. The Escazú Agreement contains regional pledges on access to information, public participation and justice in environmental matters.

Bárcena’s belief in mediation and advocacy for peaceful resolution of global disputes—something we need now more than ever—is also firmly held. When taking over as Foreign Secretary in mid-2023, she described Mexico as:

“… a country of peace and, therefore, [we] must continue to help mediate peaceful settlements of disputes and to consolidate peace. This has been our position in the United Nations Security Council and in all multilateral forums.”

Some insiders believe Bárcena offers a rare blend of experience. Like Kofi Annan, she is an ‘insider’ candidate who understands the UN and what it can and cannot achieve. This would likely mean she would need less time to learn on the job than someone unused to the UN’s internal workings.

At the same time, she has also spent time in senior roles in Mexico, so understands governments’ perspective and needs. Such knowledge will likely be viewed positively by member states when assessing what sort of person they would like in the UN’s top job. Could this combination of internal and external experience make her an ideal candidate for the next UN Secretary-General?

Assessing Bárcena’s Prospects

Could Alicia Bárcena become the next UN Secretary-General? Here is our assessment of her advantages and disadvantages should she choose to put her name into the contest.


A Woman Leader: As with our other candidates, Bárcena offers the chance to break the glass ceiling and become the first female leader of the UN.

Right Place, Right Time: As noted in our previous article on Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Bárcena is also from the Latin America and Caribbean region, which many insiders believe should provide the next Secretary-General.

Breadth of Experience: Bárcena’s decades-long experience with both the UN and Mexican government, as well as her engagement with other stakeholders, might appeal to UN member states looking for a more balanced background. Bárcena has worked with the UN as both an insider and an outsider, which may well be an asset.


Public Profile: Bárcena is well known both in Mexico and in UN circles. However, she is not a public name or former head of state like current Secretary-General António Guterres. Could this tell against her?

Prof. Felix Dodds and Chris Spence have participated in United Nations conferences and negotiations since the 1990s. They co-edited Heroes of Environmental Diplomacy: Profiles in Courage (Routledge, 2022), which examines the roles of individuals in inspiring change.

Photo- Alicia Bárcena. (2024, April 14). In Wikipedia



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