In Hindsight: The Appointment of the Secretary-General
Secretary-General António Guterres’ five-year term concludes on 31 December 2021. The process of selecting and appointing the next Secretary-General officially commenced when the British Ambassador to the UN, Barbara Woodward, acting in her capacity as president of the Security Council, and General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir, issued a joint letter on 5 February to all member states, soliciting candidates for the position. This was in line with resolution 69/321, which was adopted on 11 September 2015 and called on the two presidents to start the Secretary-General appointment process through a joint letter setting out the process.
The UN Charter provides little guidance on the appointment process. Article 97 of the UN Charter simply says that: “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” Rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure states that the Council’s recommendation to the General Assembly shall “be discussed and decided at a private meeting”.
For most of the UN’s history, the selection of the Secretary-General was opaque and tightly controlled by the permanent members. However, in 2016, active involvement of civil society and members of the General Assembly in insisting on greater transparency and a more clearly defined selection process led to substantial changes that allowed both the General Assembly and elected members of the Security Council to play significant roles in the process. (For more information on the history and changes to the selection and appointment process, please refer to SCR’s October 2015 research report, Appointing the UN Secretary-General and its April 2017 report, The UN Secretary-General Selection and Appointment Process: Emerging from the Shadows.)
Recently the 1 for 7 Billion coalition, made up of civil society organisations, and the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency Group (ACT) of 25 member states, have expressed concern that the reforms made to the process in 2016 might be lost, especially in a situation where there were no other candidates than the incumbent. Both groups had pushed for reforms during the last appointment process. However, there are early signs that the selection process will be guided by the new practices created in 2015-2016. On 8 January, Bozkir wrote to Guterres expressing his intention to start the selection process for the next Secretary-General and asking for an early indication of his interest in seeking a second term. Bozkir stressed member states’ interest in seeing the 2015-2016 reforms consolidated, and that the process would again be guided by principles of transparency and inclusivity.
On 11 January, Guterres responded in writing to the presidents of the Security Council and the General Assembly, indicating that he is available for a second term. (The position is once-renewable.) Guterres’ decision to stand again triggered activity on a joint letter outlining the process. In mid-January, Council members began negotiating on the draft letter that had been prepared by the Office of the President of the General Assembly, returning the revised draft in early February.
The most significant innovation in 2016 was the participation of all the candidates in informal dialogue sessions, generally referred to as hearings. UN webcasts allowed a global audience to observe the candidates presenting their approach to the challenges facing the UN, while the larger UN membership and civil society had the opportunity to pose questions. In addition, in 2016, for the first time, all Council members met with all 13 candidates in an informal setting, allowing for further interaction. This was in stark contrast to past practice, which had been shrouded in mystery, with no public record of who was being considered for the position.
The joint letter makes clear that this year’s candidates will have the opportunity for meetings with Council members and that there will be informal dialogues in the General Assembly before the Council’s selection process begins. It seems that Guterres has conveyed to the two presidents that he is ready to provide a vision statement and participate in an informal dialogue. The current understanding is that the informal dialogues are likely to take place in April and May in the General Assembly, with the Council beginning its discussions in May or June. According to the joint letter, the informal dialogues can continue throughout the selection process, which would accommodate candidates nominated after April or May. While these sessions were widely praised for increasing the transparency of the selection process last time, there may be scope for further refining them. In a letter to the two presidents containing recommendations based on lessons learnt from 2016, ACT has suggested that the format of the informal dialogues should be changed to avoid repetitive questions and allow for greater participation of civil society.
There is no clear timeline proposed for the nomination of candidates. This was a difficult issue in the negotiations of both resolution 69/321 and the joint letter of 2016. In the previous race, some members preferred not to establish definitive deadlines, to allow for late entrants to the race if no consensus candidate had emerged. This time if it does not look like there will be more than one candidate and there appears to be consensus on Guterres’ reappointment, some members may push for an early decision. It would, therefore, benefit prospective candidates to have a clear deadline for the latest point at which they could be nominated. Female candidates were particularly encouraged to run in 2016, and we may see greater pressure for female candidates to come forward from some members and civil society in the coming months.
Other areas of the nomination process could yet benefit from greater clarification. The 2021 joint letter notes that the 2015 letter states that: “Member States presenting candidates should do so in a letter to the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council.” The general understanding in 2016 was that candidates needed to be nominated by a member state. However, it is unclear whether this would apply to an incumbent running for a second term. In addition, at least one individual, apparently not nominated by a member state, has written to the Office of the President of the General Assembly announcing their candidacy. Other questions that may arise are whether a candidate can only be nominated by their country of citizenship, and if a member state can nominate more than one candidate. In September 2016, the Bulgarian government shifted its support for then UNESCO Directory-General Irina Bokova, the candidate it had nominated in February 2016, in favour of Kristalina Georgieva, then Vice-President of the European Commission.
When the Council begins to focus on the selection process, how quickly it makes a decision may depend on whether there are candidates apart from Guterres. Although Council members met all the candidates informally in 2016, if Guterres is the sole candidate, 2021 could see a similarly swift trajectory to the previous reappointment process. Following then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s announcement on 6 June 2011 that he would seek a second term, the Council met in consultations on 10 June, and having established that there was consensus on re-appointing Ban, adopted a resolution in a private meeting on 16 June with this recommendation to the General Assembly. Similarly, if the Council were to adopt a similar resolution recommending Guterres, the General Assembly would proceed to vote on its own resolution re–appointing Guterres to a second term.
Should there be multiple candidates, the Council may wish to hold meetings with them, as it did in 2016. The question of using straw polls may also come into play. Since 1991, the Security Council has used some form of straw poll to determine the viability of candidates ahead of a formal vote. In a situation with multiple candidates, there can be a number of rounds of straw polling, including colour-coded ballots that distinguish permanent and elected members. These polls have been criticised in the past for lack of transparency, notwithstanding the tendency for outcomes to leak quickly, and there may be a push for more open communication from Council members following any straw polls this year. (For more information on the history of straw polls and the Security Council, please refer to Security Council Report’s June 2016 research report, Appointing the UN Secretary-General: The Challenge for the Security Council.)
No matter the number of candidates, this selection and appointment process is an opportunity to cement the gains made in transparency and accountability in 2016. Going beyond consolidation of those gains, both the Council and the General Assembly could also provide further guidance on areas such as the nomination criteria and the format created for interactions with candidates.