The Role of the UN Secretary-General

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a UN Human Rights Council session in February 2019.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a UN Human Rights Council session in February 2019. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations’ top leadership position has broad authority to steer the organization’s agenda, but its impact has varied widely since 1946.

Last updated August 26, 2019

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a UN Human Rights Council session in February 2019.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a UN Human Rights Council session in February 2019. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images
Backgrounder
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The United Nations’ first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, called it the most difficult job in the world. Some of the difficulty lies in the job description. Though U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, several years before the United Nations’ creation, saw the secretary-general’s role as that of a “world moderator,” the UN charter refers to the secretary-general as the body’s “chief administrative officer.” Each of the nine secretaries to date has tended to favor one of these roles.

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Kofi Annan (1997–2006), for example, was considered an activist, “world moderator”–style secretary-general and won a Nobel Peace Prize, but he faced many criticisms during his tenure, including for his management of the Oil-for-Food program in Iraq and his response to the Rwandan genocide. His successor, Ban Ki-moon (2007–2016), was seen as more of an administrator, and he successfully pushed forward the Paris Agreement and increased the number of women in UN senior management. However, he too faced criticism, including for his handling of the Haiti cholera crisis.

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The current secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, is focused on advancing sustainable development and regulating digital technologies, though he has faced a staggering range of crises, including the ongoing Syrian civil war and repression of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

Despite the challenges that all secretaries-general have faced, what appears to be constant is the ambiguous nature of the position itself—a role bifurcated between the tasks of “secretary” and “general,” and almost always more of the former than the latter.

What is the UN secretary-general?

The UN Charter describes the secretary-general as the organization’s “chief administrative officer.” Beyond that, the leader’s desired qualities, candidate-selection process, and length of tenure were left open to interpretation. The UN website describes the secretary-general’s role as “equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO.”

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The secretary-general is required to uphold the values of the United Nations, even at the risk of challenging member states. For example, when tensions escalated between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1999, Annan famously said that “no government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate human rights.” Still, in the book Secretary or General?, Simon Chesterman and Thomas M. Franck say the officeholder is sometimes treated as “an errand boy and punching bag,” expected to be both 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. Secretaries-general usually come from countries considered to be small- or medium-sized neutral powers. To date, all appointees have been male career diplomats. They generally serve no more than two five-year terms. Although a national from an Eastern European country has yet to hold the seat, regional rotation is observed. The five permanent members of the Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—by custom avoid nominating their nationals.

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Does the secretary-general play a political role?

Yes. 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 the secretary-general to choose between playing an activist role, in the tradition of Dag Hammarskjold (1953–1961), who died in a plane crash while flying to cease-fire negotiations in Northern Rhodesia, or more of a bureaucratic role, as did Kurt Waldheim (1972–1981).

Ban called on his predecessor, Annan, to serve as a joint special envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League on the Syrian crisis. Guterres, for his part, is spearheading an upcoming climate action summit; has appointed special envoys to Syria, Somalia, and Sudan, among other countries; and supports a strong European Union.

Stephen Schlesinger, a UN expert and former director of the World Policy Institute, says the job can be 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 functions as the United Nations’ executive office and handles operations, including research, translation, and media relations. The Secretariat has a staff of more than 38,000 people from 187 countries. Each secretary-general has handled his administrative responsibilities differently. Hammarskjold established a system of offices in charge of legal, political, personnel, and budgetary aspects of the secretariat, while Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992–1996) added undersecretaries-general to oversee operations. During Annan’s administration, the deputy secretary-general position was created to handle day-to-day operations. Under Guterres, the protocol for delegating authority in the Secretariat was revised and two new management departments were created.

Human Resources. The secretary-general appoints undersecretaries for approximately fifty UN posts, including the heads of funds such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and UN Development Program (UNDP). An important aspect of the appointment process involves lobbying efforts by member states to fill these posts with their nationals, highlighting the secretary-general’s role in ensuring broad regional representation in UN leadership

Peacekeeping. The secretary-general’s office oversees peacekeeping missions and appoints the undersecretary in charge of that department, involving some fourteen operations worldwide as of 2019. While the General Assembly or Security Council may initiate a peacekeeping mission (though the General Assembly has only done so once), operational control rests with the Secretariat. Guterres has introduced several reforms to the UN peace and security framework, including the creation of the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the Department of Peace Operations.

Mediation. As part of the “good offices” responsibility of the position, the secretary-general practices independence and impartiality to prevent and limit conflict. Examples of UN leaders taking on mediation roles in the past include Hammarskjold’s promotion of an armistice between Israel and Arab states and Javier Perez de Cuellar’s (1982–1991) negotiation of a cease-fire to end the Iran-Iraq War. The secretary-general also appoints envoys charged with brokering peace deals. Such envoys report to the Security Council, and their appointments can be influenced by the preferences of the council’s members. In February 2017, for example, the United States objected to Guterres’s appointment of former Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as envoy to Libya. The intervention raised the question of whether such appointments are subject to approval by the Security Council, even if the UN Charter authorizes the secretary-general to make the decision.

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 the most influence. Any one of them can eliminate a nominee with a veto. For example, China vetoed a third term for the fourth secretary-general, Austria’s Waldheim, while the United States vetoed a second term for the fifth, Egypt’s Boutros-Ghali. Although the ten elected members of the Security Council do not have veto power, their votes are still crucial, as candidates need at least nine votes to be recommended as secretary-general.

Critics of the appointment process say it lacks transparency and falls prey to cronyism due to the permanent Security Council members’ veto power and their secret negotiations over candidates. The selection of Guterres was more open than any previous election, with a televised town hall meeting and informal dialogues between the candidates and the General Assembly.

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

The secretary-general is tasked with upholding 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 representatives.

Critics say the structure of this relationship has made the secretary-general beholden to Security Council members, particularly the United States, which is the United Nations’ largest funder and host to its headquarters. “No secretary-general can afford to alienate the United States if they want to have success in the job,” says Schlesinger.

The secretary-general will inevitably find it more difficult to engineer workable Security Council majorities to back his conflict mitigation and resolution efforts.
Stewart M. Patrick, CFR’s senior fellow in global governance

The secretary-general often struggles to balance the interests of other large funders and powerful member states as well. For example, in 2016, threatened with the substantial defunding of certain humanitarian operations, Ban acquiesced to Saudi Arabia’s demand to remove a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from a list of groups that have exploited children. Similarly, despite repeatedly calling on the Security Council to intervene in the civil war in Syria, Ban was unable to reconcile council members’ divergent concerns, and they failed to adopt a unified multilateral response. Ban later stated that “the Syrian tragedy shames us all” and that he regretted “the lack of empathy and lack of compassion of world leaders.

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

While the secretary-general will continue to focus on world’s most pressing issues, from climate change to civil wars, competition among powerful member states is increasingly undercutting his ability to facilitate international peace and security.

“The Security Council was set up so that no enforcement action could be authorized against the wishes of one of its five permanent members,” says Stewart M. Patrick, CFR’s James H. Binger senior fellow for global governance. “As the scope of great power competition extends to new regions and issue areas, the secretary-general will inevitably find it more difficult to engineer workable Security Council majorities to back his conflict mitigation and resolution efforts.”

Experts expect that Guterres will prioritize reforming the UN management structure, as well as championing UN sustainable development and peace and security initiatives. He will focus on channeling resources toward conflict prevention, rather than mitigation, and push for cooperation on migrant rights under the UN Migration Network, which he set up. His agenda also includes adopting a humanitarian approach to disarmament, advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and advocating for human rights. Furthermore, having established the Panel on Digital Cooperation in 2018, Guterres will push for policies to strengthen cooperation on digital technologies, with a focus on adapting such technologies for the achievement of the SDGs.

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.”

Amber Duan, Francesca Regalado, Carin Zissis, Lauren Vriens, and Ankit Panda contributed to this report.

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Resources

The United Nations profiles Antonio Guterres’s journey to becoming secretary-general.

CFR Senior Fellow Stewart M. Patrick unpacks findings published by Guterres’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation for World Politics Review.

The United Nations maintains a collection of the secretary-general’s opinion pieces and press articles.

Danny Bradlow reflects on Kofi Annan’s legacy after the former secretary-general’s death in 2018.

New York University’s Center on International Cooperation analyzes Ban Ki-moon’s contributions as the seventh secretary-general.

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