Seventy Years of Secretaries-General: From Lie to Guterres

Guterres swearing in
General Assembly Seventy-first session, 59th plenary meeting Appointment of the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO, the Secretary-General is a symbol of United Nations ideals and a spokesman for the interests of the world’s peoples, in particular the poor and vulnerable among them.

~“The role of the Secretary-General” from

António Guterres of Portugal was sworn in last week to be the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations when Ban Ki-moon’s term ends on 31 December 2016. But what does this mean, exactly? What does the UN Secretary-General do? Why is the selection of the Secretary-General so important?

Defining the job

In Chapter XV of the UN Charter, the Secretary-General’s job is defined as the “chief administrative officer of the Organization” and it allows for the major organs of the United Nations to direct work to the Secretary-General as they see fit. The Secretary-General is also to report on the work of the UN system to the General Assembly each year. Finally, the Charter provides that “The Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.”

As with many high-profile, but loosely-defined positions, tradition, precedence and personality have played a significant part in shaping the role of the United Nations Secretary-General. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon came from Dag Hammarskjöld, who greatly expanded the role of the United Nations Secretary General by proactively acting as a global mediator and pushing for the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), which was first deployed in the Suez crisis of 1956. Hammarskjöld insisted that the United Nations, and the Secretary-General’s office, in particular, could play a critical third-party role in settling international conflicts peacefully. This has remained a mainstay of the job since the 1960s.

Controversies, customs and the UNSG

The election of a new Secretary-General is often seen as an important signal about global priorities, influence and agenda-setting. Because the recommendation for the Secretary-General must come from the Security Council, the Permanent Five essentially have veto power over the nomination, but custom holds that the Secretary-General should not be a citizen of a P5 country. Indeed, most Secretaries-General have been compromise candidates from middle-powers that represent a loose rotation among regions for the office. Customarily, the appointment to Secretary-General is five years, and to date, no one has held the office more than twice.

The history of the election of Secretaries-General tells us much about geopolitical and international history since 1945. The Soviet Union was frustrated in the early years of the United Nations about being outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Western bloc. They opposed the reappointment of Trygve Lie, the second Secretary-General of the United Nations due to the UN’s role in the Korean conflict, and during Dag Hammarskjöld’s term, suggested the Secretary-General be replaced by a more-representative troika. This move failed, and after Hammarskjöld’s untimely death in a plane crash on a peacekeeping mission in Northern Rhodesia, the developing world insisted on a non-European Secretary-General, paving the way for U Thant of Burma to assume the role from 1961-1971. China vetoed the re-election of the fourth UN Secretary-General, Kurt Waldheim, to a third term for 15 rounds, and it was later revealed that he had been accused of war crimes by the UN War Crimes Commission based on his involvement with Nazi Germany. The fifth UN Secretary-General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, emerged as a compromise candidate during a deadlock over Waldheim. He served for two terms. Then, in the early 1990s, the Non-Aligned movement insisted the next Secretary-General come from Africa, and with support from China and a majority in the General Assembly, they helped secure the election of Boutros Boutros Ghali of Egypt. The United States, however, vetoed a second term in 1996. The next two elections were less controversial. Kofi Annan, of Ghana, succeeded Ghali and served for two terms and was followed by Ban Ki-moon of South Korea.

UN Secretaries-General

The first eight Secretaries-General were chosen in basically-closed sessions of the Security Council (though not without significant lobbying from other UN Member States and the occasional straw poll), but in 2016, the Security Council took steps to make the process more transparent and sent a letter inviting nominations for the post. Many believed the election in 2016 would see the installation of the first woman to be named as the UN Secretary-General, with many women nominated and considered to be top contenders for the job. When Guterres was chosen for the job, there was some significant pushback in the international community on the question of gender equality and the UN’s commitment to the principle.

The New Secretary-General’s Agenda

Mr. Guterres, who will take office in January 2017, and the United Nations certainly face significant challenges in the second decade of the twenty-first century: ongoing refugee and humanitarian crises, climate change, disarmament and international security, human trafficking, gender equality, a changing cyber landscape, and shifting demographics among others.

In a speech at his swearing-in, Guterres outlined three broad priorities for his term as Secretary-General: working for peace; supporting sustainable development; and reforming its internal management. Many expect Guterres, who spent ten years as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, also to be a powerful voice for refugees in the coming years.


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