Research Report

The UN Secretary-General Selection and Appointment Process: Emerging from the Shadows

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Security Council Report published its first report anticipating this selection and appointment process—Appointing the UN Secretary-General—in October 2015, setting out the history of the process and procedure, and describing previous proposals for change. Our second report—Appointing the UN Secretary-General: The Challenge for the Security Council—examined the major developments from October 2015 to June 2016. Throughout the process, we recorded the developments in SCR’s regular publications, the Monthly Forecast and What’s in Blue. This final report provides a comprehensive account of developments in the Security Council and General Assembly from the beginning to the end of the process, describing the major changes that culminated in the choice of António Guterres as the next Secretary-General. It includes an assessment of the process based on interviews with the key actors from the Council, the General Assembly and civil society, as well as observations and options for improving the process further.

On 6 October, in a decision which Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin described as “maybe the best success of the Security Council in the past five years,” the Council recommended to the General Assembly that António Guterres be appointed the ninth UN Secretary-General for a term of office from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2021. On 13 October, the General Assembly adopted its resolution making the appointment. The selection process that resulted in this appointment was the culmination of a historic change in a process that had been shrouded in secrecy throughout its history. It also marked the first time since 1950 that the General Assembly played a significant role in the selection of the Secretary-General.

The UN Charter devotes just 16 words to the appointment of the Secretary-General. Article 97 of the Charter states:

“The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

In 1946, General Assembly resolution 11 (I) established ground rules for the appointment process, including terms and conditions of employment, length of term of office—subject to modification—and possibility of reappointment. It also declared that it would be desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only for the consideration of the General Assembly.

For 70 years, the most significant evolution in this process took place within the Council, as it introduced the use of straw polls to determine the viability of candidates ahead of a formal vote. Since 1997, members of the General Assembly have discussed several proposals aimed at improving the transparency and inclusivity of the selection process, and finding a role for the wider membership of the UN, but these discussions led to no change in the process.

Regarding the selection process that was to culminate in 2016, a strong civil society campaign for change, and a mood among members of the General Assembly that they were not willing to acquiesce quietly in a business as usual exercise after years of increasing frustration at the lack of progress in Council reform, were the drivers behind significant changes in the process. Key roles among member states were played by Costa Rica and Estonia on behalf of the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) Group, and Croatia, as one of the two co-chairs of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the Work of the General Assembly (hereafter the Revitalization Working Group). A strong president of the General Assembly was crucial to effective implementation of the changes. An active group of elected members ensured that the new mood was reflected in the Council, and permanent members, while retaining ultimate control, accepted that the process had undergone some fundamental shifts as a result of the changes generated by the General Assembly.

The first step was a groundbreaking General Assembly resolution, adopted in September 2015, that created the framework for a more transparent process. This led to unprecedented public dialogues with the candidates that tested a broad set of skills, providing the UN membership as well as a global audience with an insight into the thinking of candidates and how they presented themselves in front of a large audience. Council members had to come to their decision on a recommendation to the General Assembly in very different circumstances than in the past. While the modalities in the Council—straw polls and a private meeting to vote on the recommendation—were not much different from past selection processes, the environment created by the preceding transparent process in the General Assembly impacted the Council’s decision-making.

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