As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon prepares to step down in 2017, momentum has been building to enact real changes to the process by which his successor will be appointed. At UN headquarters, member states have been quietly negotiating a draft resolution which would address the issue, under the auspices of the “Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly”. Eminent individuals, including Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and Mary Robinson, have spoken out for major changes to the process. Even some permanent members of the Security Council have called for a process that is more open and inclusive, as the United Kingdom did at a Council session in June 2015.
However, major obstacles remain. While more than two-thirds of the UN’s membership has expressed support for some type of reform, the number and diversity of ideas on the table complicates the process of identifying the most popular proposals. Moreover, because the Ad Hoc Working Group ordinarily passes its resolutions by consensus, a determined minority of member states can effectively block meaningful language in the resolution. And the power and influence of the states which oppose reform—namely, those who benefit the most from the status quo—may deter others from taking a position.
Over the past year and a half, the 1 for 7 Billion campaign has been advocating for an appointment process for the Secretary-General that is merit-based, transparent, and inclusive of all member states and the general public. This civil society campaign, which represents more than a hundred NGOs around the world, believes that strong procedures are more likely to result in a capable and effective Secretary-General at the UN’s helm. To this end, the campaign has made ten recommendations on how the process could be improved.
Because the process to appoint the Secretary-General is opaque and secretive, rooted in a mixture of General Assembly resolutions and informal practice, it can be unclear to those who are unfamiliar with the existing procedures how the process could be improved. Ironically, this lack of clarity can also make it difficult to counter arguments made by opponents to reform, which are often based on misinformation about how the process was established and how it has evolved over time. In order to clear up some common misunderstandings, here are six common myths about the Secretary-General—and how they match up to reality.
MYTH 1: The Secretary-General is appointed by the Security Council.
It is often suggested that the Security Council was tasked with selecting the Secretary-General by the UN Charter. However, the UN Charter assigns critical roles to both the General Assembly and the Security Council in the identification and appointment of a new Secretary-General.
According to Article 97 of the Charter, the Secretary-General should be “appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”. In other words, while the Security Council is charged with proposing candidates to the General Assembly, the General Assembly must decide whether or not to confirm these candidates. It is the General Assembly, not the Security Council, which is granted final decision-making power by the UN Charter.
MYTH 2: The Secretary-General is “selected”.
Although the process to appoint the next Secretary-General is commonly described as a “selection” process, it is better understood as an election, in which the General Assembly decides whether or not to confirm the recommendation of the Security Council.
The 1946 General Assembly resolution 11(1), which elaborates how the General Assembly will make the appointment, states that the Secretary-General can be elected by a simple majority in the General Assembly unless the Council decides otherwise.The resolution further specifies that any vote should be by secret ballot.These provisions indicate that an election in the General Assembly was anticipated to appoint the Secretary-General.
During the last few appointments, the General Assembly has opted to appoint the Secretary-General by acclamation instead of by vote. This may have contributed to the misconception that the Secretary-General is actually “selected” by the Security Council. However, resolution 11(1) makes it clear that the General Assembly has the right to vote on whether or not to appoint the Security Council’s recommended candidate.
MYTH 3: Changing the appointment process for the Secretary-General would require an amendment to the UN Charter.
The UN Charter offers only one provision on the appointment process, Article 97, which broadly outlines a role for both the Security Council and General Assembly.The article states that the Secretary-General “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council”.
Several of the more practical details about the recommendation and appointment—such as the number of candidates to be recommended, voting procedures, and the length of the Secretary-General’s term— were established by General Assembly resolution 11(1) in 1946. Other aspects of the process, including the way an individual becomes a candidate and the criteria used by the Security Council in making its recommendation, have never been formally adopted. This lack of guidance from the UN Charter provides member states with a unique opening to establish more effective procedures by adopting a new resolution.
MYTH 4: Changes to the appointment process must be made by the Security Council because they are part of the Security Council’s working methods.
Those who oppose reform often claim that the General Assembly does not have the authority to alter the terms of the Security Council’s recommendation—such as the number of candidates recommended or the length of term for which the candidates are recommended—because these constitute working methods of the Security Council, over which the Security Council has sole authority. Article 30 of the Charter, for instance, establishes that the Security Council will adopt its own rules of procedure.
However, this position fails to recognize that current procedures were originally established not by the Security Council, but by the General Assembly. The 1946 General Assembly resolution 11(1), for instance, states that it would be “desirable” for the Security Council to recommend only one candidate to the General Assembly. It further mandates that the first Secretary-General be appointed for a term of five years, which could be renewed once, but that the Security Council and General Assembly could modify the term length in the future.
By preserving current practices, the Security Council actually implements decisions made by the General Assembly. It stands to reason that if a new General Assembly resolution was adopted, it ought to be implemented just as faithfully by the Security Council.
MYTH 5: The next Secretary-General must come from a certain region.
There is no requirement in the UN Charter, or in General Assembly or Security Council resolutions, that the Secretary-General must come from a specific region. Past General Assembly resolutions, including 51/241, 60/286, and 68/307, have simply called for “regional rotation” or “geographical balance” to be taken into consideration when making the appointment. Notably, these resolutions state that region should be a factor in the course of identifying and appointing “the best candidate” for the position, or that the “highest possible qualifications” should be met in addition to regional diversity.
Although one often hears of an informal regional rotation scheme for Secretary-General, candidates from more than one region have been nominated and considered for the position during almost every appointment process.
MYTH 6: The Secretary-General was only ever intended to be an administrator.
The Charter describes the Secretary-General as the UN’s “chief administrative officer,” and assigns the office specific administrative duties such as an Annual Report to the General Assembly. However, even within the Charter itself, it is clear that the Secretary-General is not exclusively an administrative post. Article 99, for instance, allows the Secretary-General to bring to the attention of the Security Council “any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security,”
Indeed, from the outset, the UN’s founders expected the Secretary-General to play an expansive role in the organization. The 1945 UN Preparatory Commission report foresaw the possibility that the Secretary-General would become a “mediator” and “informal adviser” to governments, making it critical that the post-holder exhibit the “highest qualities of political judgment, tact, and integrity”. The report also highlighted the symbolic significance of the office, observing that the Secretary-General “will stand for the United Nations in the world”.
While there is undoubtedly a strong administrative component to the role of the Secretary-General, the diplomatic and political functions of the post are equally significant. The procedures to appoint the Secretary-General must reflect the importance of the office’s far-reaching responsibilities.
In light of its 70th anniversary this fall, the United Nations has a meaningful opportunity to adopt an appointment process for its highest official that is worthy of the organization itself: one that appoints a skilled and effective leader to implement its decisions. As in any serious negotiations, there will be challenges to overcome. Member states will have legitimate disagreements on how best to improve the process. Nonetheless, these are conversations that can— and should—take place. As highlighted above, there is nothing in the UN Charter or existing resolutions to prevent member states from taking concrete action this year.
As a civil society campaign, 1 for 7 Billion not only encourages member states to support reform, but also urges those with an interest in the UN to spread the word about this issue. The general public can help to raise awareness of the topic—and put pressure on member states to stay engaged. The public can also help to scrutinize candidates, raising concerns about their records and qualifications. By making our voices heard, we can ensure that the UN has the leadership it needs to tackle the world’s most critical challenges.