The Role of the UN Secretary-General

The Role of the UN Secretary-General

Authors: Carin Zissis, and Lauren Vriens


The UN’s first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, called it the most difficult job in the world–an observation iterated by most of his seven successors. Some of the difficulty lies in the job description itself. Though U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, several years before the UN’s creation, saw the secretary-general’s role as that of “world moderator,” the UN charter refers to it as “chief administrative officer.” Each of the eight secretaries has tended to favor one role or the other.

Kofi Annan, for example, considered an activist, “world moderator”-style secretary-general, won a Nobel Prize for encouraging global cooperation on peace, but he was criticized for his management of the UN’s Oil for Food program in Iraq and other issues. His successor, Ban Ki-moon, more of an administrator by temperament, has been regarded as less than successful (Economist) in pushing forward his agendas on climate change and ending global poverty. What does appear to be constant is the ambiguous nature of the secretary-general position itself–a role bifurcated between the tasks of “secretary” and “general.”


What is the UN secretary-general?

At the time the United Nations was established in 1945, the UN Charter described the secretary-general broadly as the “chief administrative officer.” Beyond that, the type of leader needed, how to select the candidate, and the person’s length of tenure were left open to interpretation, writes Brian Urquhart, former undersecretary-general, in an article forForeign Affairs. The UN website stipulates that the secretary-general be “equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO.” These guidelines also require that the secretary-general uphold the values of the UN, even at the risk of challenging member states. In the book Secretary or General, Simon Chesterman and Thomas M. Franck say the person in the post is sometimes treated as “an errand boy and punching bag,” expected to be at once an independent political force and a public servant.

Despite the broad and vague requirements of the job, some informal norms are observed in appointments for the post. Secretary-generals usually come from countries considered small- to medium-sized neutral powers, are career diplomats, and serve no more than two five-year terms. Regional rotation is observed, with nationals of the five permanent members of the Security Council–the United States, China, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom–ineligible.


Does the secretary-general play a political role?

Yes. Despite the open-ended nature of the job description, the position calls for less of a clerk than did the role of director of the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor. Article 99 of the UN Charter says the secretary-general “may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” This provision allows a secretary-general to choose between playing an activist role, in the tradition of Dag Hammerskjöld, a Swedish diplomat, or more of a bureaucratic role, as did Austria’s Kurt Waldheim. Stephen Schlesinger, a UN expert and former director of the World Policy Institute, says the job can serve as a “perch” used “to rally world public opinion around issues that wouldn’t necessarily have been addressed otherwise.”


What are the main responsibilities of the secretary-general?
  • Administrative. The secretary-general oversees the UN Secretariat, which handles UN operations, including research, translation, and media relations. The Secretariat–the UN’s executive office–has a staff of close to nine thousand people from about 170 different countries. Each secretary-general has handled his administrative responsibilities differently. Hammerskjöld established a system of offices in charge of legal, political, personnel, and budgetary aspects of the secretariat. Boutros Boutros-Ghali streamlined the system by adding under-secretaries-general to oversee operations and report back. During Annan’s administration, the deputy secretary-general position was created to handle day-to-day operations. This book, published by the International Peace Institute, chronicles the evolution of the secretariat.
  • Human Resources. The hiring of under-secretaries for approximately fifty UN posts, including the heads of funds such as UNICEF and UNDP, falls under the purview of the secretary-general. An important aspect of the hiring process involves lobbying from members to fill posts with their nationals, highlighting the secretary-general’s role of negotiating with the Security Council and General Assembly to ensure broad regional representation.
  • Peacekeeping. The secretary-general’s office shoulders responsibility for overseeing peacekeeping missions and appoints the under-secretary in charge of that department, involving some sixteen operations worldwide as of September 2008. Although the General Assembly or Security Council may initiate a peacekeeping mission, operational control rests with the Secretariat.
  • Mediation. This function involves the secretary-general’s role as a mediator between parties in conflict. As part of his “good offices” role the secretary-general makes use of his independence and impartiality as the head of a global organization to prevent and stop the spread of conflict. Examples of UN leaders taking on mediation roles in the past include Hammarskjöld’s promotion of an armistice between Israel and Arab states and Javier Perez de Cuellar’s negotiation of a ceasefire to end the Iraq-Iran War.


How is the secretary-general appointed?

The Security Council recommends a candidate for the General Assembly’s 193 members to appoint. Although all UN members get a voice in the secretary-general’s selection, the five permanent members of the Security Council hold sway as any one of them can eliminate a nominee with a veto. China vetoed a third term for the UN’s fourth secretary-general, Austria’s Kurt Waldheim, while the United States vetoed a second term for the fifth, Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Although the ten elected members of the Security Council do not have veto power, their votes can prove crucial as a candidate needs at least nine votes to be recommended as secretary-general.

Critics of the appointment process say it historically lacks transparency and falls prey to cronyism due to the permanent members’ veto power and negotiations over secret candidates. The selection of Ban Ki-moon was possibly the most open, with the Security Council announcing formal candidates. Still, Ban was the favored choice of China, demonstrating the importance of the permanent members in shaping UN policy through the secretary-general selection process.


What is the secretary-general’s relationship with the Security Council?

In working with the Council, the secretary-general is tasked with standing for the interests of underrepresented states and balancing the demands of the Security Council with those of General Assembly members. The relationship between the Security Council’s five permanent members and the secretary-general is similar to one between constituents and their elected representative. Critics say the structure of this relationship has made the secretary-general beholden to Security Council members, particularly the United States.

With the United States serving as the UN’s largest funder (Heritage), accounting for more than 20 percent of the organization’s total budget as of 2010, “no secretary-general can afford to alienate the United States if they want to have success in the job,” says Schlesinger. The United States’ position as both founder and host to the United Nations has at times complicated Washington’s relationship with the secretary-general. During Annan’s second term, which coincided with the Bush administration coming to power, the relationship grew contentious. Annan called the U.S. deployment of troops in Iraq “illegal,” angering the White House, while some UN members criticized him for failing to take an even stronger stand. The relations between the United Nations and the United States have improved under Annan’s successor. Ban Ki-moon told President Bush in 2007 that Iraq is the world’s problem (Reuters), clearly extending a diplomatic hand to the United States.


What is likely to be the future focus of the UN secretary-general?

The most pressing issues for the world community, whether human trafficking or civil wars, will continue to play a role. Emphasizing the link between climate change and conflict has been Ban’s top priority since he took office. Ban has stressed that the Darfur conflict began as an ecological crisis in an effort to encourage countries to combat global warming in the interest of security. Like Annan, Ban has also made reform of the UN management structure a priority. “Just about everything we do hinges on sound management of the limited resources entrusted to us,” he said in a speech to the General Assembly in April 2008. Nonproliferation, Annan’s Millennium Development Goals, and human rights are also included on the secretary-general’s hefty agenda, though he leaves the implementation of these programs up to agencies such as the UN Development Program and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Each secretary-general interprets the role differently, however. Discussing the organization’s future, former CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein put it as follows: “A secretary-general is like a Supreme Court justice–you never know what you’re going to get.”


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