The Role of the UN Secretary-General
Backgrounder

The Role of the UN Secretary-General

The United Nations’ top leadership position has broad authority to steer the organization’s agenda, but its impact has varied widely since 1946.
Secretary-General António Guterres at the UN headquarters in New York City.
Secretary-General António Guterres at the UN headquarters in New York City. Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Summary
  • The secretary-general, appointed by the General Assembly’s 193 member states, serves as the chief administrative officer of the United Nations.
  • Common responsibilities include making appointments to UN posts, overseeing peacekeeping missions, and mediating conflict.
  • Previous secretaries-general have often struggled to balance the role’s competing interests. Current officeholder António Guterres has focused on climate change, peacekeeping, and reforming UN management.

Introduction

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.

More From Our Experts

The current secretary-general, Portugal’s António Guterres, has focused on advancing sustainable development and regulating digital technologies, even as he has faced a staggering range of crises, including worsening climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s war in Ukraine. Despite the challenges that all secretaries-general have confronted, 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?

More on:

United Nations

International Organizations

Global Governance

Diplomacy and International Institutions

The Charter of the United Nations 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.”

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, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (1997–2006) 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 write that 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.

More From Our Experts

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 Hammarskjöld (1953–1961), who died in a plane crash while flying to cease-fire negotiations in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), or more of a bureaucratic role, as did Kurt Waldheim (1972–1981).

Annan, 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. His successor, Ban Ki-moon (2007–2016), was seen as more of an administrator, and he successfully pushed forward the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate and increased the number of women in UN senior management. However, he too faced criticism, including for his handling of the Haiti cholera crisis.

More on:

United Nations

International Organizations

Global Governance

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Guterres, who won a second term in 2021, has urged world powers (namely the United States and China) to overcome tensions and work together to confront global challenges. He has  championed efforts to combat climate change, calling out governments and companies for “adding fuel to the flames.” Guterres wrote a letter to the Security Council in 2017 to draw attention to human rights abuses by the Myanmar army. However, some critics say he hasn’t gone far enough, arguing that his avoidance of confrontation with world powers has come at the expense of human rights. Some observers say, for example, that he hasn’t done enough to condemn China’s abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang

Meanwhile, since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Guterres has repeatedly called for peace and met separately with the countries’ leaders. He has mainly focused on humanitarian needs, such as guaranteeing aid deliveries, creating evacuation corridors, and resuming global grain shipments from Ukraine. He also launched a fact-finding mission to investigate the killing of prisoners in the Donetsk region.

For UN expert Stephen Schlesinger, the job of secretary-general is largely one of persuasion. It can be used, he says, “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 thirty-six thousand. Each secretary-general has handled his administrative responsibilities differently. Hammarskjöld 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, which manages a dozen operations worldwide. While the General Assembly or Security Council can 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 his Action for Peacekeeping initiative, an effort to strengthen peacekeeping operations by implementing reforms across eight major areas, including increasing gender parity among peacekeepers, improving coordination with local governments, and strengthening accountability for misconduct.

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 Hammarskjöld’s promotion of an armistice between Israel and Arab states and Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’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 2017, for example, the United States blocked 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 in 2016 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.

Proponents of UN reform often criticize the Security Council’s veto powers for obstructing efforts to respond to humanitarian calamities and violations of international law. For example, Russia’s veto power prevented the United Nations from taking action against Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. “What the crisis has revealed are the inherent limitations of any structure of international peace that depends on great power unanimity,” writes former CFR Senior Fellow Stewart M. Patrick.

The secretary-general often struggles to balance the interests of other large funders and powerful member states. 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.”

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

While the secretary-general will continue to focus on the world’s most pressing issues, from climate change to global health crises, 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 Patrick. “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.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on; climate change continuing to worsen; and unresolved conflicts in Ethiopia, Myanmar, Ukraine, and Yemen, among other nations, growing deadlier, Guterres has pledged to work toward recovery by developing a more unified United Nations that responds to global crises with collective action. 

“Our world has never been more threatened. Or more divided. We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes,” Guterres said at the 2021 UN General Assembly in New York. 

Guterres has said he will continue to prioritize reforming the UN management structure in a way that draws on the resources of institutions, businesses, and civil-society networks to address world issues. His agenda includes pushing countries to make more ambitious climate commitments; reforming the global financial system to be more equitable; and easing tensions between member states, such as the United States and China. 

With the release of a sweeping report in 2021 titled Our Common Agenda, Guterres called for revamping the UN system, which he said is failing to deal with global challenges such as climate change. The report outlined actions governments can take to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including expanding health-care coverage, connecting everyone to the internet, and supporting developing countries as they confront climate change. In 2023, he is expected to host a Summit of the Future to mobilize such actions and “reinvigorate the multilateral system,” Guterres said.

Recommended Resources

This Backgrounder explains the role of the UN General Assembly.

Former CFR Senior Fellow Stewart M. Patrick looks at Guterres’s ambitious plan to overhaul the multilateral system.

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

For World Politics Review, the International Crisis Group’s Richard Gowan examines Guterres’s second-term agenda.

This timeline explores the history of UN climate talks

The University of Pretoria’s Danny Bradlow reflects on Kofi Annan’s legacy after his death in 2018.

Lindsay Maizland and Melissa Manno contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphic.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
Close

Top Stories on CFR

COVID-19

Government leaders are optimistic that COVID-19 is becoming endemic, meaning more predictable and manageable. But many scientists say it’s too soon to behave like the pandemic is over.

Climate Change

The UN climate summit delivered on a loss and damage fund, but it fell short on goals to reduce emissions and avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

Malaysia

Malaysia's voters delivered an inconclusive message in the general election, leading to a hung parliament.