Selecting the UN Secretary-General

The UN Charter provides a rather uncomplicated selection process for the organization's top post - appointment by the General Assembly upon nomination of the Security Council - which has since been supplemented by other procedural rules and accepted practices.

In the past, the process was rather opaque and untransparent, with purported candidates encouraged to remain unknown to the public and the final selection made very shortly before the individual takes office. The eventual nominees were often compromise candidates chosen through protracted, politicized and largely secretive bargaining among Security Council members. The General Assembly then debated the nomination, with little prior knowledge of the nominee’s background, vision or agenda, before appointing him (it’s always been a ‘him’) to the post.

  • Legal Provisions
  • Accepted Practices
  • Calls for Reform
  • This Year's Selection Process

    Legal Provisions

    Article 97 of the Charter provides that the Secretary-General be appointed by the General Assembly upon a nomination from the Security Council. The nominee must receive at least nine votes in the Council, including no veto from a permanent member. This year, that includes permanent members China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States and rotating members Argentina, Congo, Denmark, Ghana, Greece, Japan, Peru, Qatar, Slovakia and Tanzania.

    Click here for a review of these governments' purported positions. »

    A number of General Assembly resolution complemented the Charter's provisions, the most fundamental being Resolution 11/1 adopted in 1946. This resolution set the term of office for the UNSG at 5 years (renewable), established the practice of a single nominee being recommended by the Security Council, and set a simple majority being necessary for appointment, unless the General Assembly itself decided to require a two-thirds majority.

    In 1997, Resolution 51/241 reaffirmed the General Assembly's key role of appointment in the selection process. This included the right of the President of the General Assembly to consult with UN member states on potential candidates and to forward recommendations to the Security Council for consideration during the nomination phase. It also codified for the first time the practice of regional rotation, called for greater gender equality in identifying potential candidates, and urged that the nominee be appointed no later than one month before needing to assume office to provide for a "smooth and efficient transition."

    Resolution A/Res/60/286 repeated much of Resolution 51/241, emphasizing the necessity of engaging all UN member states in the selection process and inviting the President of the Security Council to regularly consult with the General Assembly as the process unfolds.

    Rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council requires that the Council's deliberations on the nomination must be held in private session. Similarly, Rule 141 of the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly requires the Assembly's consideration of the Council's nominee to be discussed and voted on in closed session.

    Accepted Practices

    Advance discussion and political compromises behind closed doors generally ensure the nomination of a single candidate, usually from a middle power and with little prior fame, who is appointed by acclamation to a five year term. While high profile candidates are frequently touted for the job, these are almost always rejected as unpalatable to some governments. Although there is technically no limit to the number of five-year terms a Secretary-General may serve, UN Secretaries-General by convention serve two terms in office and are chosen on a rotational basis among the world’s geographic regions. While the rotational practice would now strongly encourage an Asian be selected in 2007, there are rumblings that Eastern Europe (technically a UN regional group) have not fielded a UNSG in the organization's 60 year history.

    In 1996, the Security Council adopted a set of guidelines for the selection process proposed by then Permanent Represenative to the UN from Indonesia, H.E. Ambassador Nugroho Wisnumurti. The "Wisnumurti Guidelines" have continued to influence the selection process, including the use of approval voting on each of the suggested candidates through color-coded straw ballots.

    Security Council Report, affilitated with Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, has produced an analysis that is an informative introduction for those new to the topic but substantive enough for those with a strong familiarity with the process. It provides an oversight of the history, process and procedures surrounding the selection, including a history of past SG’s selections and terms, recent GA resolutions that could play out this year and the weak basis of “traditions” such as regional rotation and the five-year term.

    In addition, informal rules often influence the selection process. The best known is that nationals of permanent members of the Security Council - China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom or the United States - cannot be considered for the post, as such would invest an unwise amount of leverage over international decisions in one government, notwithstanding the statutory independence of the office. Less commonly known, and perhaps more questionable, is the informal requirement that candidates for UNSG must be fluent in English and French, which, while the dominant languages of international relations, are only two of the UN's six official languages.

    Calls for Reform

    The UN Charter provides little in terms of details regarding the selection process, and no provisions at all on criteria or qualifications of the world organization's "chief adminstrative officer." Due to this, it is no surprise that suggestions for reforming the selection process often arise prior to each new selection, particularly in ways that open to the process to democratic oversight and accountability, and which propose qualifications for candidates.

    With the UN currently seized with a number of reform challenges, the selection of its top officer has prompted more public calls for reforms of the selection process. Most of these efforts underscore both the lack of clear criteria and institutional mechanisms by which to evaluate “the relative merits of the candidates, their approach to the office and their vision of the UN.” Among their recommendations (though unlikely to be implemented this year) are a formal search committee, informal candidate panels or interviews, concrete timetables, formal candidate lists and a standardized system of background checks. is an informal NGO coalition calling for a more open and transparent process for the selection of the UNSG. Drawing inspiration from selection processes for other high-level officials, the group provides a useful set of tools and mechanisms for an improved selection process, and is developing a list of procedural requirements and candidate criteria that can be endorsed by civil society groups to guide the current selection process and initiate longer-term procedural reforms.

    The Canadian government has led governmental calls for reform, intially through the release of "non-paper" calling for a “more open and rigourous” selection process for the UNSG. In subsequent discussions, the Canadian ambassador has outlined five specific proposals for reform. Two of the proposals - a single 5 or 7 year term and discussions between candidates and regional groups - are being pushed for implementation this year, while the others will need to be realized for later selections. The non-paper recommends that the UNSG selection process could adopt practices currently used in the selection of other high-level offices - processes that are “consultative, transparent and merit-based.” The Canadian ambassador has particularly charged that the feasibility of holding forums between candidates and member states has been demonstrated with the recent World Economic Forum appearance of candidates before an international audience.

    Concerns from developing nations on the selection of the next UNSG has been voiced most vocally by India, which has suggested the Security Council present the General Assembly with three nominees rather than the traditional single nominee. The proposal met with unanimous opposition by the permanent members, and was rejected other members (including Canada) for its potential of splitting the membership and weakening the next UNSG's base of support. The proposal also was reportedly opposed by many in the Asian group, who foresaw the possibility of multiple Asian nationals being nominated and dividing the Asian governments as well.

    A taskforce of the United Nations Association of the United States (UNA-USA) recently released "Selecting the Next Secretary General," offering several recommendations on improving the selection process, identifying desired skills and qualifications of candidates and noting the issues and priorities the next UNSG will face. The taskforce included representatives from several UN members states, former and current UN officials, and several private sector, academic and civil society experts.

    This Year's Selection Process

    This year’s UN Secretary General selection has been unprecedented in its openness and transparency. Candidates drafted campaign platforms, created campaign websites and spoke at public events around the world. India, Canada and other middle-power states demanded a stronger role for the General Assembly in proposing and vetting candidates under consideration.

    The Security Council – often criticized for its unrelenting, secretive grip on the nomination process – responded by limiting its consideration to only formally (read, publicly) nominated candidates from member governments. The overall impact has been that governments outside the Security Council and the world public know more about the individual who will guide the United Nations through the next five-to-ten years than they have any previous nominee.

    The Security Council held a series of “straw polls” to weigh each candidate’s level of support, and if possible, to narrow the field by encouraging weaker candidates to withdraw early on. In the past, these straw polls differentiated between permanent members and elected members through color-coded ballots. Disapproval of a candidate by a permanent member was likely to equal a veto in the formal vote.

    This year, however, the Security Council has held three straw polls (July 24th, September 14th, September 28th) in which all members either “encouraged,” “discouraged,” or offered “no opinion” without regard to their permanent or elected status. South Korea’s candidate Ban Ki Moon has led each time, but always with one “discouragement.”

    The fourth straw poll, the first which differentiated between the permanent and non-permanent members, took place on Monday, October 2th. In that poll, Ban Ki Moon again secured the highest number of votes, but was able to also avoid any discouraging votes. This result indicated he had the support of all five permanent members, whereas the other five candidate all secured at least one likely veto. By the end of the week, all of the other candidates had withdrawn from the race, leaving Ban as the sole candidate.

    Ban Ki Moon is expected to be formally nominated at a meeting of the Security Council on October 9th, and soon thereafter, appointed by the General Assembly. He will assume office as the eighth Secretary General of the United Nations on January 1, 2007.