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Timeline: UN Secretary-Generals

Author: Christopher W. Tatlock
Updated: September 18, 2008
This publication is now archived.

Ban Ki-moon, Korea

(2007 – Present) Ban Ki-moon's tenure has featured a new emphasis on climate change policy, efforts to mitigate the surging prices of both energy and food in the developing world, and an inherited portfolio of issues including nuclear nonproliferation negotiations with Iran and continued efforts to solidify the United Nations' role in Sudan's Darfur conflict. Prior to serving as secretary-general, Ban was South Korea's Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He joined the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1970, and served in a variety of diplomatic roles inside and outside of Korea during the next twenty-five years, including posts at embassies in the United States, Austria, and India. In 2001, Ban started work at the United Nations as chief of staff to Han Seung-soo, the president of the General Assembly. Ban returned to Korea after his term and served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2004 until 2006. He has been actively involved in issues relating to inter-Korean relations. In September of 2005, he helped bring about a landmark agreement aimed at promoting peace and stability between North and South Korea through Six-Party Talks. Since becoming Secretary-General, Ban has spoken out on several issues including the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats, the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region, and administrative reform of UN operations.

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Kofi Annan, Ghana

(1997-2006) Kofi Annan began his career as a budget officer with the World Health Organization (WHO) and rose through the ranks to become UN under-secretary-general at a time of record increases in peacekeeping operations. In 1995 he was appointed the secretary-general's special representative to the former Yugoslavia. Since his election in 1997, Annan's goals as secretary-general have included implementing management and budget reforms, addressing ever-growing costs and demands for UN peacekeeping operations, and better meeting the needs of poorer nations. Under his leadership, the United Nations executed contemporary platforms aimed at sustainable development in Africa and the utilization of global capitalism to benefit socioeconomic needs. His "Millennium Report" advocates initiatives to eradicate poverty, combat HIV/AIDS, and protect the environment.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Egypt

(1992-1996) Boutros-Ghali served one term as secretary-general, suspending his candidacy for a second term after conflicts with U.S. foreign-policy leaders. He has an extensive international relations background as a scholar, diplomat, and jurist. Boutros-Ghali's term in office was marked by increased operating costs and ineffective peacekeeping efforts that proved burdensome to the UN. Unsuccessful U.S. participation in Somali peacekeeping operations, inability to curb fighting in Bosnia and Croatia, and subsequent reluctance from the international community to act against genocide in Rwanda, all precipitated U.S. support to transition the leadership position of secretary-general.

Javier Perez de Cuellar, Peru

(1982-1991) Before assuming office, Perez de Cuellar was Peru's ambassador to Switzerland, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Venezuela; served as his nation's permanent representative to the United Nations; and represented Peru on the Security Council, even serving as the Council's president. In 1979, he was appointed under-secretary-general for special political affairs. While in office, the UN leader oversaw negotiations for the release of American hostages in Lebanon, facilitated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan, negotiated the ceasefire ending the Iran-Iraq War, and developed the 1991 UN-backed peace pact in Cambodia.

Kurt Waldheim, Austria

(1971-1982) Before he was elected secretary-general, Waldheim was the permanent representative of Austria to the United Nations. During his two-term leadership of the UN, Waldheim participated in the Paris International Conference on Vietnam and presided over the first phase of the Geneva Peace Conference on the Middle East. Five years after his second term ended, Waldheim was elected President of Austria, a post he held until 1992; however, during the campaign his service in the German Army came to light. Though he declared no personal involvement, Waldheim was implicated in Nazi atrocities in the Balkans during World War II and was subsequently barred from entering the United States by the Justice Department.

U Thant, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma)

(1961-1971) U Thant served as acting secretary-general after Dag Hammarskjöld's death. Just over a year later, the General Assembly voted unanimously to make him secretary-general. At the time of his appointment, U Thant was the permanent representative of Burma to the United Nations, and had previously chaired the UN Congo Conciliation Commission and the Committee on a UN Capital Development Fund. Under his leadership, the United Nations facilitated the end of the Cuban missile crisis and allayed civil war in the Congo.

Dag Hammarskjöld, Sweden

(1953-1961) Dag Hammarskjöld was unanimously elected to two terms as secretary-general and served until September 18, 1961, when he died in a plane crash en route to a peace mission in the Congo. Mr. Hammarskjöld's most significant contributions to the United Nations' mission include promotion of Armistice Agreements between Israel and the Arab States; the 1956 establishment of the UN Emergency Force (UNEF); and multiple visits to countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East to acquaint himself with officials of member governments and problems in specific areas.

Trygve Lie, Norway

(1946-1952) Prior to his election as the first secretary-general of the United Nations, Lie led the Norwegian delegation to the UN Conference on International Organization in San Francisco, April 1945; chaired Commission III, which drafted the Security Council provisions of the UN charter; and in 1946 he led the Norwegian delegation to the UN General Assembly in London. While in office, Lie supported UN intervention in the Korean War and the foundation of Israel and Indonesia. He also advocated UN recognition of People's Republic of China upon the exile of the Nationalist government.

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