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 Antonio Guterres at the UN headquarters in Manhattan.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. Andrew Kelly/Reuters
Summary
  • The secretary-general, who is appointed by the General Assembly’s 193 member states, serves as the chief administrative officer of the United Nations.
  • Though the role itself is not well-defined, 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 Antonio Guterres has focused on climate, peacekeeping, and reforming UN management.

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, including, most recently, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon.

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The current secretary-general, Portugal’s Antonio Guterres, has focused on advancing sustainable development and regulating digital technologies, even as he has faced a staggering range of crises, including the Syrian civil war, worsening climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic. 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?

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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.”

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 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.

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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 (now Zambia), or more of a bureaucratic role, as did Kurt Waldheim (1972–1981).

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 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.

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Guterres, for his part, has spearheaded a series of annual climate summits, including the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP26). The summit’s purpose is to build off of the Paris Agreement and accelerate progress toward meeting ambitious emissions-reduction targets, with the ultimate goal of reaching “net zero” by 2050. 

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. 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, which manages a dozen operations worldwide as of 2021. 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 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 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 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. In June 2021, Guterres was unanimously reelected as secretary-general for a second five-year term after being nominated by his home country and approved by the 193 member states.

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, Senior Fellow in Global Governance

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, early attempts to condemn Myanmar’s 2021 military coup were blocked by Russia and China, and recent efforts to respond to the growing conflict by imposing an arms embargo have also been thwarted by the two nations, which both have ties to Myanmar’s armed forces.

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” 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 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 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.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic raging on; climate change continuing to worse; and unresolved conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ethiopia, 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 says he will continue to prioritize reforming the UN management structure, with a focus on “inclusive, networked multilateralism” that draws on the resources of institutions, businesses, and civil-society networks to address world issues. His agenda includes pushing for a global COVID-19 immunization plan that doubles vaccine production and addresses vaccine inequity; protecting against security threats in cyberspace; advancing gender equality; and easing geopolitical tensions between member states, such as the United States and China. 

Having called on society to mobilize for a “decade of action” to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2019, Guterres has also promised to focus on climate mitigation efforts. Under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, this would include channeling resources toward transitioning to carbon neutrality, redirecting finances toward clean-energy solutions, and promoting international cooperation in building climate resilience.

Recommended 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.

This timeline explores the history of UN climate talks from 1992 to 2020. 

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

This Backgrounder explains the role of the UN General Assembly.

Melissa Manno contributed to this Backgrounder.

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