by Aden Knaap, Harvard University
“The most impossible job on this earth” was how the first United Nations Secretary-General summarized his position. This was due in no small part to uncertainty over the nature of the position itself. The founders of the UN offered little by way of job description. Chapter XV of the UN Charter provided that the Secretary-General would be “appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council” and serve as “chief administrative officer of the organization.” Chapter XV merely required them to report annually “on the work of the organization”.
But Article 99 did allow for the Secretary-General to assume a more independent political role: the Secretary-General, it was written, may bring to the Security Council’s attention “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”
It is perhaps for this reason that the position has, to an extraordinary degree, been defined by the individual who holds it. The first—the Norwegian Trygve Lie—was instrumental in establishing the permanent UN headquarters in New York. His successors have brought their own skills and preoccupations to the role: from the emphasis of Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) on peacekeeping, to the focus of Kofi Annan (Ghana) on the Millennium Development Goals.
The selection process has been described as “part beauty pageant, part grand-jury investigation, and part college admissions essay.” To be sure, the process does require something of a balancing act from potential candidates. The process begins in the Security Council, where members vote in a series of secret straw polls over whether to “encourage” or “discourage” a particular candidate. The voting continues until a majority candidate emerges who is without a single veto from the Council’s permanent members. The General Assembly then formally votes to confirm the appointment.
A new secretary-general was most recently chosen in October 2016. In the lead up to the election, there was a strong push to elect a woman for the first time in the UN’s history; potential candidates included a former prime minister of New Zealand and head of the UN Development Programme, the director-general of UNESCO, foreign ministers, and high-level UN officials. Instead, the General Assembly settled on António Guterres, former Prime Minister of Portugal and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, while making fictional superhero Wonder Woman Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Still, the response from many commentators has been positive: the New York Times, for example, singled out Guterres as “an excellent choice” based on his “experience, energy and diplomatic finesse.”
This page provides resources for understanding the history of the Secretary-General and links to major media outlets’ assessments of Guterres.