Meet the United Nations Secretariat

UNHQ Staff, August 1985
United Nations staff members are recruited from Member States of the Organization. Seen here is a representative group of the United Nations Headquarters staff. [August 1985]

On 1 January, Antonio Guterres took up the mantle of Secretary-General of the United Nations. While most commonly thought about as an orator and moral force, the Secretary-General also plays another important role: leading the United Nations Secretariat, the executive arm of the United Nations. The Secretariat is unique among the six primary organs. Its 44,000 international civil servants execute the policies and programs of the United Nations, help to set the international agenda, and support the work of the United Nations’ deliberative bodies. The Secretariat’s work is often out of sight, but it is crucial to the modern United Nations.

Make the General Assembly, Security Council and major UN Summits happen: The Secretariat provides extensive support for meetings both major and routine. They prepare for the meetings, help to set the calendar and remove conflicts, credential delegations, manage the press pool, provide reports and background briefings, and perform many other tasks.

Inform international debate: Before, during and after a meeting or summit, the Secretariat issues reports and hosts events that inform how Member States and other actors see an issue. These reports provide facts and recommendations to support the work of the delegates. They may also highlight the views of unrepresented stakeholders in a discussion. For example, the Secretariat’s My World campaign collected the perspectives of 9 million young people on United Nations priorities and potential Sustainable Development Goals. The Secretariat’s reports and activities also provide a “reality check”—indicating what is feasible and at what cost. Often, these reports come at the request of Member State themselves. The General Assembly and Security Council regularly ask the Secretary-General to prepare reports on everything from agriculture to peacekeeping.

Translate meetings and documents: The United Nations works in six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish). The Secretariat provides real-time translation of speeches and meetings, as well as translations of official United Nations documents. 

Provide technical assistance and political support: Since its founding, the United Nations has sought to bolster cooperation on political, economic and social issues. Many countries turn to the United Nations for advice and assistance. Through the Secretariat and the United Nations funds and programmes, countries can get advice, technical support and on-the-ground assistance on how to run better elections, implement security sector reform, create good urbanization strategies and almost any other issue.

Mediate conflicts: The Secretary-General and the Secretariat work to mediate conflicts, both directly and indirectly. Special Envoys of the Secretary-General work with parties to resolve existing conflicts—and prevent future conflicts. The Secretariat has a team of mediation experts that it draws upon to support these envoys.

Manage peacekeeping operations: When the Security Council approves a peacekeeping mission, the Secretariat conducts a field assessment and plans the deployment, and identifies military and police personnel who can be deployed. The Secretary-General also appoints the peacekeeping force commander and senior officials and reports back to the Security Council. While the Secretariat supports peacekeeping, peacekeepers themselves are not part of the Secretariat. They are drawn from the militaries and police forces of United Nations Member States and serve as peacekeepers on a temporary basis.

Respond to humanitarian disasters: When a natural disaster or other humanitarian crisis strikes, the Secretariat’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) springs into action. It identifies “cluster leads” among the UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. Each cluster lead organizes the international response in a particular area, such as housing, food or sanitation. OCHA works with the cluster leads to identify needs and to raise money from donors. As a crisis progresses, OCHA updates Member States and the world through its comprehensive ReliefWeb website.

Receive treaty signatures: The United Nations serves as a primary depository for treaties. When a new treaty is signed or a new Member State ratifies a treaty, that information is given to  the United Nations. The lawyers in the Office of Legal Affairs also assist Member States with drafting new treaty language and interpreting existing treaties and resolutions. Informal interpretation provided by the Secretariat often precedes cases going to the International Court of Justice.

Coordinate and manage global statistics: All those figures on progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals have to come from somewhere. The United Nations Statistics Division works with national governments and independent experts to collect information on everything from educational attainment to amount of forested land. This information is often used by the Secretariat and Member States alike to inform future priorities and discussions.

These are only a few of the things the Secretariat does every day, though they are some of the most significant. Almost every other part of the United Nations relies on the Secretariat to make their own work happen. Where the United Nations is, the Secretariat almost certainly is too.

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