Who should lead the United Nations?

Information on candidates and informal dialogues
Latest candidate information is available here. Watch informal dialogues with candidates and other interviews on UN Web TV.

Opinion piece by Mogens Lykketoft, President of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly

This year, the United Nations will choose its next Secretary-General.  We need the best possible candidate for the job.

It is often spoken of as the most impossible job in the world.

And given the files that the next United Nations Secretary-General will take over on 1 January 2017, it is easy to see why: appalling conflicts and human suffering in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Europe; violent extremism that is threatening us all; continued discrimination against women and girls; a worrying rise in xenophobia; over 800 million people struggling to escape extreme poverty; close to 60 million displaced around the world; a unique window-of-opportunity to address Climate Change and the Sustainable Development Goals before it is too late; and an Organization that needs to adapt to the challenges and new Goals the world is facing.

In its 70 year history, the UN, for all its flaws, has demonstrated that it can rise to such challenges. But to do so today, it must secure the best possible candidate through this year’s process of selection and appointment of the next Secretary-General.

The role of the UN Secretary-General
Many have suggested that the UN’s most senior official should either be a Secretary or a General. This is too simplistic, for the Secretary-General must be both and more.

A person with strong moral courage and integrity; he or she – and I do not see why the best candidate should not be a woman – must be a voice for the world’s most vulnerable people and embody the very ideals and purposes of the United Nations.

The world’s top diplomat; the Secretary-General must use her independence, impartiality and good offices to prevent conflict, broker peace and stand-up for human rights.

A person with political stature and strong leadership skills – with the authority to bring to the attention of the UN Security Council any matter which in her opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.

As the chief administrative officer of the UN, the Secretary-General must create a culture of integrity, fairness, competence and efficiency right across the UN family and oversee a huge Organization with a budget of approximately $10 billion, a staff of over 40,000 and 41 peace operations worldwide.

The Secretary-General must be a person with strong inter-personal and communication skills – able to navigate smoothly in our increasingly multi-polar world and drive a global transition to sustainable development.

An archaic selection process
One might think, therefore, that the process for choosing the Secretary-General would be as vigorous, inclusive and transparent as possible.

But to date this has not been the case.

Previously, there has been no clarity on when the selection process actually started or, somewhat unbelievably, who was actually running for the job. Also, there has been no formal job description and no real opportunity for substantive and open engagement with the candidates – neither for the full UN membership nor the public.

The result: Recommendations negotiated behind closed doors – primarily by the five permanent members of the Security Council; eight Secretaries-General, not one of whom has been female; and a mostly symbolic appointment by the UN General Assembly. Therefore, Secretaries-General have, not always rightfully, been perceived to be beholden to the very powers that they must be most independent of.

A better way to choose the next SG
The UN Charter is clear on the respective roles of the Security Council and the General Assembly in the selection and appointment process and it must be adhered to.

But recent changes to the process itself, agreed to by all 193 members of the General Assembly, provide us with a genuine opportunity to make it more transparent, more robust, more inclusive and ultimately, more effective.

As President of that Assembly, it is my job to ensure that those changes are implemented.

So here’s what’s happening.

Last December, the President of the Security Council and I set the selection process in motion by issuing a call for candidates to be presented as early as possible.

We outlined the central features of the process. We pointed out some of the key criteria for the position and, in light of seven decades of male dominance, we encouraged member states to present both female and male candidates.

To date, seven candidates have been presented and their biographies and related information are now publicly available on my website.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity to truly break from the past comes in the form of open dialogues that I will hold with the candidates. These dialogues – referred to by some as the ‘SG hearings’ – will begin on April 12.

Each candidate is expected to prepare a vision statement on the challenges and opportunities facing the UN and the next Secretary-General. They will present themselves for two-hours of questions from the full UN membership as well as from civil society and each dialogue will be streamed live online. The dialogues will continue with new candidates until the Security Council makes its recommendation. And I expect everyone who is serious about becoming the world’s next chief diplomat to engage openly and directly with the full UN membership and the people that he or she will ultimately serve.

An opportunity for change
Of course, these innovations will not directly transform our world and discussions continue on issues such as the length and renewability of the Secretary-General’s term and whether the General Assembly should vote on an appointment or not.

But they do have the potential to establish a new standard of transparency and inclusivity in international affairs. They can increase our chances of securing the best possible candidate to lead the United Nations. And they represent, I believe, a moment in history when the General Assembly – the world’s most representative and democratic decision-making body – reasserts itself.

Given the global challenges we face today, this could be a real game-changer.

So, please, go online, participate on social media, make yourself heard and help us find the best possible candidate for UN Secretary-General, that our world needs.

Read: Selecting a new UN Secretary-General: a job interview in front of the whole world


How is the Secretary-General of the United Nations appointed?
The Secretary-General heads the Secretariat as the chief administrative officer of the Organization.

Article 97 of the Charter states, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”.

The documents related to the appointment of Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in 2006 illustrate the general pattern past appointments have followed. Mr. Ban was appointed to a second 5 year term in 2011.

  • Member states send letters to the Security Council recommending candidates
    for example, S/2006/524
  • Security Council meets in a closed meeting to decide on a candidate
    for example, S/PV.5547
  • Security Council adopts a resolution to recommend the candidate
    for example, S/RES/1715 (2006)
  • Security Council transmits the recommendation to the General Assembly
    for example, A/61/501
  • General Assembly meets to consider the recommendation of the Security Council
    for example, A/61/PV.31
  • General Assembly adopts a resolution to appoint the Secretary-General
    for example, A/RES/61/3

As illustrated in the sample meeting records, very little discussion about the candidates occurs in open, formal meetings of the Security Council or General Assembly. Most of the negotiations on this matter take place behind the scenes and the official documents rarely reflect the process, just the outcome.

There have been regular calls for an increase in transparency in the selection and appointment of the Secretary-General, for example in General Assembly resolution 69/321, operative paragraphs 32-44, adopted 11 September 2015.

For the selection of the next Secretary-General, the Presidents of the Security Council and the General Assembly have issued a joint letter to invite states to nominate candidates (A/70/623).

“In line with General Assembly resolution 69/321, the present joint letter serves to begin soliciting candidates and to set in motion the process of selecting and appointing the next Secretary-General of the United Nations, in accordance with the provisions of Article 97 of the Charter of the United Nations and guided by the principles of transparency and inclusivity.”

The President of the General Assembly’s website includes a page on the selection process and information about the candidates.

In the past, there have been websites and activists who advocate for candidates and about the appointment process. It is expected that similar sites will become more active as the next appointment approaches.

Names of candidates nominated for appointment of the next (ninth) Secretary-General are available from the President of the General Assembly page.

Previous appointees
Mr. Ban Ki-moon, the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations, took office on 1 January 2007.

His predecessors were:

Kofi A. Annan (Ghana), who held office from January 1997 to December 2006;

Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), who held office from January 1992 to December 1996;

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru), who served from January 1982 to December 1991;

Kurt Waldheim (Austria), who held office from January 1972 to December 1981;

U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), who served from November 1961, when he was appointed acting Secretary-General (he was formally appointed Secretary-General in November 1962) to December 1971;

Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), who served from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in Africa in September 1961; and

Trygve Lie (Norway), who held office from February 1946 to his resignation in November 1952.

Although there is technically no limit to number of five-year terms a Secretary-General may serve, none so far has held office for more than two terms.

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