10 Questions for Louise Fréchette

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After eight years as the second most powerful figure at the United Nations, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette, 59, is returning to Canada for a post at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. She spoke with TIME's Stephen Handelman about the scandals that have weakened the world body and why the next U.N. chief should be a woman.

TIME: This has been another rough year for the U.N. Why can't it get respect?

LF: It's been rough in some ways, but at the same time, the U.N. is more in demand than ever. We have 85,000 people deployed in peacekeeping missions--the largest number of people deployed in the field in the U.N.'s entire history.

TIME: Yet the oil-for-food scandal and bitterness over the U.N.'s role in Iraq--just to name two issues--have tarnished its reputation.

LF: The U.N. still has a challenge to put in place systems that are robust enough to give managers assurance that they know what's happening. But if you take the oil-for-food issue, let's remember that the real corruption was between Saddam Hussein and thousands of companies.

TIME: Why can't the U.N. stop the human-rights abuses in Darfur?

LF: I would be the first to say that what has been done is insufficient. The deployment of African troops to Sudan has been supported financially by Western countries, but the force is not large enough and doesn't have the necessary mobility.

TIME: Haven't we also fallen behind in the pledges made at the U.N. millennium summit six years ago to reduce poverty?

LF: In fact, the Millennium Development Goal of reducing poverty by half will be reached in 2015. The largest number of poor people live in India and China, and these countries are making great strides. In other parts of the world, the picture is not so good, but to say the goals are a failure is an oversimplification of reality.

TIME: You were the highest-ranking woman at the U.N., but in many quarters, it's still seen as a patriarchal, conservative place.

LF: There are 191 member states and just 18 women ambassadors. That tells you something. But women have led UNICEF, the High Commission for Refugees and other U.N. agencies, and others are serving in the most demanding conditions around the world. I'm full of admiration for them. Very often I've received delegations where, on my side of the table, all of us were women, while on the other side all were men. Those were moments I enjoyed particularly.

TIME: What's it like being an international civil servant with no formal ties to your native land?

LF: I will never see the world again in the same way. I've been given a window on the world that you can never get if you're a diplomat from your own country, where you see everything through the prism of your own national interest. My country has respected my independence completely, and I appreciate that.

TIME: There's an argument brewing over Canada's latest military mission to Afghanistan. Any thoughts?

LF: From a U.N. perspective, we're delighted that Canada is in Afghanistan. There aren't a huge number of countries that have the capabilities, the experience and the money to do so, and if we want to matter in the world, we have to accept our share of responsibilities.

TIME: Which national leader impressed you most?

LF: Nelson Mandela.

TIME: Secretary-General Kofi Annan is leaving at the end of the year. Should his replacement be a woman?

LF: I hope so. It's important that women accede to the fullest responsibilities, although I'd be the last person to argue that a woman should be elected solely because she's a woman. She has to have all the other qualities for the job.

TIME: Such as?

LF: A sense of humor. I'm a relaxed person, and I use humor to be happy in my work. In a multilateral, multicultural environment like this, 24 hours a day, there have to be some common bonds, and humor is one of them. If I couldn't tease people, I wouldn't be able to function.