In Hindsight: The Process of Selecting a UN Secretary-General
Download the supplemental insert on Selecting the UN Secretary-General: Vetoes, Timing and Regional Rotation.
Before the end of 2016, the next UN Secretary-General has to be chosen. The Security Council had its first informal discussion on this issue on 22 July. Though no meetings are scheduled in September in the Council on the Secretary-General selection process, members will be participating in the final stages of negotiations on a draft resolution in the General Assembly on the revitalisation of its work, which includes significant paragraphs on the selection process. With activity expected to pick up in the coming months, it may be helpful to recall the evolution of relevant Council practice over the years. (For more, please see SCR’s Special Research Reports: The Appointment of a New Secretary-General of 16 February 2006; The Appointment of a New Secretary-General of 21 June 2006; and The Appointment of the UN Secretary-General of 24 May 2011.)
The UN Charter in Article 97 says that the Secretary-General “shall be appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council”. With one exception, the General Assembly’s role in appointing the Secretary-General has been limited to the formal act of appointment, with the Council doing the real decision-making. (In 1950, following a succession of inconclusive votes in the Council, the General Assembly decided in a majority vote to extend the term of Trygve Lie without a recommendation from the Council.)
There are no requirements for a timetable for the selection process other than General Assembly resolution 51/241, which states that “the Secretary-General should be appointed as early as possible, preferably no later than one month before the date on which the term of the incumbent expires”. From 1972 to 1997, the practice was a Council decision in December or late November, with the new Secretary-General starting in January. Reappointments were occasionally considerably earlier. In the last competitive selection process in 2006, which resulted in Ban Ki-moon’s appointment, for the first time there was a concerted effort to start the process earlier. Successive Council presidents began meeting with the president of the General Assembly from March 2006 to discuss the selection process. In June, a formal letter was sent by the Council president to the General Assembly president informing him that the Council would start considering candidates in early July. The formal selection took place in October 2006. In 2015, there have been proposals that the process of selection of the next Secretary-General should be initiated considerably sooner through a joint letter from the two presidents.
Once a formal announcement is made, the nomination process begins. Specific details of how it has been done over the years are difficult to ascertain but it appears that in the early years, candidates were generally suggested by P5 members. In recent years, member states have presented candidates (who do not need to be their nationals) to the Council president. Regional organisations have also sometimes chosen to endorse candidates from their region.
Once a list emerges, the Council begins its consideration of the candidates. A system for determining the views of Council members, particularly the P5, ahead of a formal decision has developed over the years. Since 1981, if there has been more than one candidate, the Council has conducted “straw polls” in consultations where members vote to either “encourage” or “discourage” each candidate. Ugandan permanent representative, Olara Utunnu, who was president of the Council in August 1981, proposed the idea of straw polls, to assess new candidates after a deadlock between incumbent Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who was seeking an unprecedented third term, and Salim Salim of Tanzania. In 1991 the practice of colour-coded ballots was added to differentiate votes between permanent and elected members in the final stages of the straw ballot process. An innovation in 2006 was the inclusion of a “no opinion” or abstention option, in addition to “encourage” and “discourage” in the straw polls. The straw-ballot process allows votes to be cast informally during consultations without official Council meetings or official votes. While this has resulted in greater flexibility, it has also made the process more secretive as, unlike private meetings, consultations have no official record. Once an acceptable candidate emerges, a formal private meeting is held to adopt a resolution with the Council’s recommendation to the General Assembly. This is in line with Rule 48 that states the Council’s recommendation to the General Assembly “be discussed and decided at a private meeting”. This decision is a matter of substance which under Article 27 (3) of the Charter requires “an affirmative vote of nine members including the concurring votes of permanent members”.
Regional rotation and the Secretary-General’s term of office, as well as whether more than one candidate should be recommended to the General Assembly, are expected to be among the key issues in the lead-up to the next appointment. Article 97 provides no guidance on either issue. While some believe that a principle of rotation has come to exist, and that this time it is Eastern Europe’s turn, others argue that the history of the terms does not establish a clear practice. After eight male Secretaries-General, many are also showing strong preference for a female Secretary-General. The UN Charter does not specify the term of office, but five years is customary. General Assembly resolution 11(1) decided that the first Secretary-General should be appointed for five years, renewable for another five. It also said that the General Assembly and the Council are “free to modify the term of office of future Secretaries-General in the light of experience”. There are calls for a non-renewable term, perhaps of seven years, instead. The proposal that multiple candidates should be presented by the Council to the General Assembly is a highly controversial one, and unlikely to gain traction among the P5. Many of these issues are being raised by member states (for example the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency group of 27 countries), as well as various civil society groups.
The evolution of Council practice in selecting the Secretary-General illustrates clearly that nothing is set in stone. Over the years, the Council has demonstrated flexibility and creativity in making this important decision with its major impact on the performance of the UN.