Selection and Appointment of the Secretary-General

The process for the selection and appointment of the UN Secretary-General (SG) is one of the key issues addressed by the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly, largely due to the critical roles allotted in the process to both the General Assembly (GA) and the Security Council (SC). For many states, this process is a critical example of how a better balance must be established between the powers of the Assembly and the Council to ensure the Assembly assumes its rightful role in the UN system.

The UN Charter offers little guidance on the appointment process for the Secretary-General, stating only that a candidate will be appointed by the Assembly “upon the recommendation” of the Security Council. In practice, the Council’s recommendation has often been determined through private deliberations between the Security Council’s five permanent members (P5)—Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—because of their ability to veto candidates of whom they disapprove. However, the elected members of the Security Council have also played a meaningful role in the process, as the recommendation requires the support of nine of the Council’s fifteen members to proceed.

The Security Council then passes along their selected nominee to be approved by the General Assembly. Although GA resolution 11 (1) suggests that the appointment should be made by a vote, in general the Assembly has adopted the Council’s recommendation by affirmation.

Historically, these practices have made it difficult for the general UN membership to engage with the selection and appointment process. Some argue that it can be challenging even to know which candidates are being considered for recommendation by the Council, given that there is no deadline for nominations and no public shortlist of candidates. Over time, dissatisfaction with the current process has grown, with both Member States and civil society characterizing it as secretive and un-democratic. These advocates contend that the entire membership is affected by the choice of Secretary-General, and should have a greater say in his or her appointment.

Some Member States have additionally described the process as unstructured and non-meritocratic, giving further cause for concern.

One area of particular interest is the qualifications or characteristics the Council and Assembly should consider when assessing whether a candidate is suited to the post. Although some selection criteria were recently adopted by the General Assembly (see resolution 69/321, para 39), it remains unclear how these criteria will be incorporated into the appointment process.

In addition to individual qualifications, many Member States believe that a candidate’s gender and country of origin should be taken into consideration when identifying the next Secretary-General. Proponents argue that taking these factors into account helps to ensure inclusiveness and fairness in the appointment process.

While there is no formal regional rotation scheme in place for the post, to date, a Secretary-General has been appointed from each of the UN’s regional groups except Eastern Europe. In December 2014, the Eastern European group issued a statement asserting its conviction that the next Secretary-General should be a national of an Eastern European country.

In recent years, concerns have also been raised about gender parity in the appointment process. Over eight Secretaries-General, no woman has ever been appointed to the position, and only a handful have been seriously considered. The General Assembly’s latest resolution on the subject “invites Member States to consider presenting women as candidates for the position of Secretary-General”.

In September 2015, the General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/69/321 on the Revitalization of the General Assembly, which included measures to improve the transparency of the process. The resolution calls for the presidents of the GA and the SC to issue a joint letter calling for nominations to begin the process, and to have a list of candidates regularly circulated to membership. It also puts forth a brief list of selection criteria for the candidates, including extensive experience in international relations and multilingual skills, and highlights the need for female candidates to be presented. Finally, the resolution decides that the General Assembly will conduct informal dialogues with these candidates in order to provide an opportunity for Member States to further engage with the process.

While many praise this resolution for its efforts to improve the selection process, many Member States, including the ACT group and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and civil society groups, such as the 1 for 7 Billion campaign and The Elders, argue that there is still more to be done.

One provision that many would like to see is a requirement that the Security Council propose two or more candidates to the GA for its consideration, with the final candidate to be elected by the Assembly. Similarly, some states have called for the appointment to be made by secret ballot in the GA instead of by acclamation. While some have expressed concern that these proposals would lead to a divisive vote in the GA, undermining support for the newly elected Secretary-General, supporters emphasize that a vote would enhance the legitimacy of the process by ensuring that all Member States can express their views.

Another common proposal is that the terms of appointment for the Secretary-General be revised to a single, non-renewable term. Proponents argue that a single term would enhance the independence of the office and protect Secretaries-General from undue pressure.

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