Frequently Asked Questions: The Selection Process for the UN Secretary-General

Q. What is the current process for the selection of the UN Secretary-General?

Q. What is the timetable for Secretary-General selection?

Q. What timetable and procedures does the UNSG Selection Campaign advocate?

Q. Is the selection process for the UN Secretary-General different from other international high-level selection processes?

Q. Does the UN have a set of basic candidate qualifications for the position of Secretary-General?

Q. How long is the term of Secretary-General?

Q. Does a formal system of regional rotation exist in selecting the Secretary-General?

Q. What is the role of the UN Secretary-General and how has it evolved? How has the position affected the work of the United Nations?

Q. How important is it for the Secretary-General to have strong management skills?

Q. What is the role of the Deputy Secretary-General?

Q. Where do Member States stand on the SG selection process?

Q. What is the current process for the selection of the UN Secretary-General? Top

A. According to Article 97 in Chapter 15 of the UN Charter, the Secretary-General “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Historically, candidates’ names are submitted to the Security Council either officially through nominations by the candidate’s home country or unofficially. The Security Council then holds closed consultations to consider candidates and has been known to utilize a system of straw polling to determine where support lies. All candidates are subject to the veto and thus must gain the support of all five permanent members of the Security Council. According to GA Resolution 11/1 of 1946, a candidate must gain an affirmative vote of nine members of the Security Council, including concurring votes of the permanent members, in order for a nomination to go forward to the General Assembly.

Resolution 11/1 also requested the Security Council to submit only one candidate for consideration by the GA to discourage debate over the nomination. A simple majority vote in the General Assembly is sufficient for the appointment of the nominated candidate, unless the GA decides otherwise. Both the nomination and appointment occur in private meetings and votes are taken by secret ballot.

Q. What is the timetable for Secretary-General selection? Top

A. No formal timetable for the selection process exists currently.

Q. What timetable and procedures does the UNSGselection campaign advocate? Top

A set timetable accompanied by systematic reporting, as applied by other international organizations, should be established to provide a more structured, transparent and accountable framework for the selection process. The selection process should follow a formal, publicized timetable with deadlines for nominations, shortlists and final selection, as well as an appropriate allotment of time for each phase. It should also include systematic reporting at each phase in the process, to be carried out by facilitators appointed by the Security Council.
Procedures that enhance the transparency of the selection process should be established to facilitate the dissemination of basic information necessary for an adequate assessment of candidates by all relevant parties. These procedures should include:

  1. Publication of an official candidate list at the end of the nomination phase, including identification of nominating party for each candidate
  2. Distribution of candidate CVs, and statements from candidates specifying how they fulfill the necessary requirements
  3. Standardized system of background checks
  4. Panel interviews and question/answer sessions with UN member states
  5. Opportunities for relevant stakeholders (NGOs, civil society, media, parliamentarians, private sector, etc) to conduct question/answer sessions with candidates

Q. Is the selection process for the UN Secretary-General different from other international high-level selection processes? Top

A. Yes. The selection process for the UN Secretary-General differs from other international high-level selection processes largely in that it lacks basic procedural standards of transparency, accountability and legitimacy. Standard guidelines, established by organizations such the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development and the World Trade Organization in the selection of their highest level officials, include general timelines for the selection process, basic candidate qualifications, procedures for assessing candidates, and a system of reporting to the broader membership. None of these are present in the current selection process for the UN Secretary-General. The process has therefore been highly susceptible to the veto powers and political interests of the permanent members of the Security Council, who have used their veto to eliminate candidates with majority support.

Q. Does the UN have a set of basic candidate qualifications for the position of Secretary-General? Top

A. The UN does not adhere to a basic set of candidate qualifications for the position of Secretary-General. However, a 1945 report by the United Nations Preparatory Commission set out the following qualities (as summarized by Security Council Report 21 June 2006):

  • Administrative and executive qualities to integrate the activity of the whole complex of United Nations organs;
  • Leadership qualities to determine the character and efficiency of the Secretariat;
  • Skills to lead a team recruited from many different countries and build the necessary team spirit;
  • Moral authority to model the independent role required by Article 100 of the UN Charter;
  • Ability to play a role as a mediator;
  • Capacity to act as an informal adviser-or confidant-to many governments;
  • The highest qualities of political judgment, tact and integrity because of the need at times “…to take decisions which may justly be called political,” not only because of the political role that is expected, but also because of the power “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter (not merely any dispute or situation) which in his opinion may threaten international peace and security”;
  • Communications and representation skills to represent the United Nations to the public at large and secure the “active and steadfast support of the peoples of the world” without which “the United Nations cannot prosper nor its aims be realized”; and
  • Overall qualities which demonstrate to the world at large that personally the candidate “embodies the principles and ideals of the Charter to which the Organisation seeks to give effect.”

These have not been updated in recent SG selection processes. Some Member States have argued that a formal set of candidate qualifications are unnecessary for such a high-level position because Member States are already well aware of the functions and requirements of the position. These arguments, however, fail to address the current discrepancy among member states regarding the proper role of the SG. Some countries view the position primarily as chief administrator while others prefer that the Secretary-General play a strong leadership role within the organization.

The UNSGselection campaign is urging the UN to incorporate the following formal candidate qualifications, to guide member states in assessing the relative competencies of the candidates.

Formal Candidate Qualifications

  1. Comprehensive understanding of and demonstrated commitment to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, including, but not limited to, international law and multilateralism.
  2. Comprehensive understanding of and demonstrated commitment to the three pillars of UN system: peace and security, development and human rights
  3. Extensive experience with the UN system or other complex international organizations
  4. Diplomatic skills and demonstrated vision and leadership, in accordance with the principles of independence, fairness, and impartiality
  5. Multicultural understanding and gender sensitivity
  6. Strong communication skills and fluency in at least one official UN language
  7. Proven openness to working with civil society and other relevant stakeholders

Q.How long is the term of Secretary-General? Top

A. GA Resolution 11/1 (1946) specified that the first term of the first Secretary-General would be for five years, with the possibility to renew for an additional five-year term. Since then, terms have been based on this five-year precedent, but the GA and Security Council have exercised their flexibility (also set out in GA Resolution 11/1) to modify the terms of contentious candidates.

Proposals have been made to replace the current system with a single seven-year term without reelection. Canada is one proponent of this change, which it believes will remove the pressure of a second confirmation from the SG’s actions.

Q.Does a formal system of regional rotation exist in selecting the Secretary-General? Top

A. Article 97 of the UN Charter does not make regional specifications, and no official system of regional rotation has been established in selecting the Secretary-General; however, many countries believe that an informal standard of rotation exists and should be applied. GA Resolution 51/241 states that:

In the course of the identification and appointment of the best candidate for the post of Secretary-General, due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality.

Currently, the debate has been shaped by the countries that believe the most qualified candidate should be selected regardless of regional implications (US, UK), and countries that believe that a system of regional rotation should guide the selection process to ensure fair geographic representation.

Regional distribution of the post of Secretary-General thus far:

  • Western Europe: 3 Secretaries-General (Trygvie Lie/Norway, Dag Hammarskjöld/Sweden, Kurt Waldheim/Austria), 6 terms
  • Africa: 2 Secretaries-General (Boutros Boutros-Ghali/Egypt, Kofi Annan/ Ghana), 3 terms
  • Asia: 1 Secretary-General (U Thant/Burma), 2 terms
  • Latin America: 1 Secretary-General (Javier Pérez de Cuéllar/Peru), 2 terms

Representatives from Eastern Europe have begun advocating consideration of Eastern European candidates under a separate regional bloc.

Traditionally, candidates from the Permanent 5 members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), are not considered to avoid further concentration of power within the UN. As with regional rotation, this is a matter of precedent and convention, rather than a written rule.

The UNSGselection campaign believes that based on the values, principles and priorities of the United Nations, it is important that, in addition to ensuring that candidates meet a number of key qualifications, the selection process be guided by the principles of both gender equality and geographic balance. The principle of equitable geographic representation must be taken into account.

Q. What is the role of the UN Secretary-General and how has this position evolved and affected the work of the United Nations? Top

A. Originally defined as the “chief administrative officer” in the UN Charter, the role of the Secretary-General has evolved according to the initiatives of its successive office-holders. // The UN Charter describes the SG as the “chief administrative officer” of the UN and bestows the SG with the authority to bring matters to the attention of the Security Council.

Serving as the first Secretary-General from 1946-1952, Trygve Lie immediately challenged the purely administrative interpretation of the SG post, stressing his role both as a leader and mediator. Since then, Secretaries-General have utilized their “good offices” as a means of preventing the rise, escalation, and spread of international disputes and conflicts.

The second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold (1953-1961), expanded upon the precedents set by Lie. His strengths as a diplomat and mediator in international crises further defined the role of the Secretary-General as a chief international arbiter. Hammarskjold is also responsible for the first United Nations peacekeeping forces, the United Nations Emergency Force, as well as the first peacekeeping mission in the Congo

U Thant (1961-1971), Hammarskjold’s successor, continued with the established roles of international mediator and diplomat and was largely successful at continuing Hammarskjold’s practice of “quiet diplomacy.” During his term, her served as a mediator in international disputes such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Six Day War. He was also responsible for establishing many of the UN development offices including UNCTAD and UNITAR.

Kurt Waldheim (1972-1981) maintained a high international profile primarily by running numerous international conferences, such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, and the World Population Conference. His unwillingness to act against the major powers in the Security Council limited his role as a mediator and his effectiveness in international crisis resolution.

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982-1991), a strong proponent of Security Council predominance, re-established the Secretary-General’s importance in crisis management and peacekeeping in a quiet and effective manner. He is largely credited with negotiating a peaceful conclusion to the Iran-Iraq War.

De Cuéllar was succeeded by Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996), who attempted to re-invigorate the predominance of the Secretary-General as chief international executive. As a strong and independent Secretary-General, Boutros-Ghali is largely credited with the expansion of UN peacekeeping operations, increasing the number of UN peacekeeping forces by four times its previous number in his first year in office. While his independence resulted in key shifts within the UN, his role as an executive as opposed to an administrator incurred the opposition of the United States, which vetoed a second term.

Kofi Annan (1997-2006) introduced the post of Deputy Secretary-General in an attempt to manage the various duties that now fall upon the office of Secretary-General. Recently, he has been active in promoting widespread UN reform including institutional reform to more clearly define the roles of separate institutions within the UN including the Secretary-General and decrease burdensome bureaucracy. The UN Secretariat has also been the target for criticism because of the controversy over mismanagement in the Oil-for-Food Scandal. The Secretary-General has devoted his last term to enhancing the transparency and accountability of the Secretariat, while creating more space for basic decision-making.

Q.How important is it for the Secretary-General to have strong management skills? Top

A. While the role of the Secretary-General includes administrative and management aspects, the Secretary-General has come to act not just as chief administrator but also as an advocate, mediator, and spokesperson, upholding and promoting the principals and values of the United Nations. Thus, while being knowledgeable and experienced in areas of management, the Secretary-General must also posses a strong background in diplomacy, a demonstrated commitment to the purposes and principals of the UN Charter, as well as extensive experience with the UN system and other international organizations.

Q. What is the role of the Deputy Secretary-General? Top

A. The establishment of the position of Deputy Secretary-General in December 1997 has shifted some of the managerial tasks formerly incumbent on the Secretary-General. The Deputy Secretary-General is responsible for the operations of the Secretariat, facilitating the coordination of activities across UN institutions, harmonizing the coherence between UN activities in the socio-economic and peace and security sectors, and overseeing UN reform. Management support provided by the Deputy Secretary-General provides the Secretary-General with more time to focus on international diplomacy. The first Deputy SG was Louise Fréchette of Canada. She was replaced in March 2006 by the current Deputy, Mark Malloch Brown of the United Kingdom.

Q. Where do Member States stand on the SG selection process? Top

A. For a comprehensive summary of states’ positions, click here.