UN Secretary-General

As the symbolic head of the UN, the Secretary-General serves as both its top diplomat and its chief administrative officer. As the UN Charter postulates, s/he is responsible for performing various functions entrusted to him/her by UN bodies, and also for "bring[ing] to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security."

Given this cursory formal description, the ideal balance of qualifications for the Secretary-General is still subject to debate. Former officeholders have adapted their mandate to their own style of leadership. While some such as Kofi Annan have been known for their strong public image as advocates, others, such as the current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, are seen more as bridge-builders or bureaucrats.

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The election process

1. The Security Council recommends a candidate for appointment to the General Assembly, an issue to be “discussed and decided at a private meeting.” [1]
2. The Secretary-General “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council,” traditionally through a GA resolution.[2]

-The appointment constitutes an “important question” requiring a two-thirds voting majority.[3]
- The Secretary General will be appointed for five years, with the option of reappointment for a further five-year-term.[4]
-The GA resolved that “it would be desirable for the Council to proffer one candidate only…and for debate on the nomination in the General Assembly to be avoided.” [5]

There is no formal appointment timetable, though GA resolution 51/241 states that “the Secretary General should be appointed as early as possible, preferably no later than one month before the date on which the term of the incumbent expires.” [6] With only a few exceptions, Secretary-General elections are typically quick and routine. Reappointments have been largely uncontested. [7]

Regional Rotation

Historically, the Secretary-General has been selected based on an informal system of regional rotation. GA Resolution 51/241 states, “due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality.” 

Regional distribution of the post of Secretary-General to date has taken the following order:

• Western Europe (Trygvie Lie, Dag Hammarskjold)
• Asia (U Thant)
• Western Europe (Kurt Waldheim)
• Latin America and the Caribbean (Javier Perez de Cuellar)
• Africa (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan)
• Asia (Ban Ki-moon)

 To date, no Secretary-General has hailed from Eastern Europe. 

Traditionally, candidates from the Permanent Five members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), are not considered for the position of Secretary-General to avoid further concentration of power within the UN. As with regional rotation, this is a matter of precedent and convention, rather than a written rule.

While former officeholders represent a wide range of countries, there has never been a female Secretary-General. 

Recent Developments

The selection process for the next Secretary-General is not expected to begin until 2016, yet rumors about possible candidates have already begun to spread.

Many of these proposed candidates are from Eastern Europe, raising questions as to whether a consensus will emerge that it is Eastern Europe's "turn" for an SG.  In the most recent ad hoc working group on the Revitalization of the General Assembly, which considers the SG selection process, only Belarus and Liechtenstein mentioned that Eastern Europe has not had an SG.  

However, there seems to be widespread agreement among member states that it is time for a woman to be seriously considered for Secretary-General.   In fact, in the ad hoc working group the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) went so far as to suggest that only female candidates be considered in 2016.  It remains to be seen whether these expressions of support in the General Assembly will translate into action by the Security Council, where deliberations over individual candidates actually take place.  

In order to encourage a more transparent process in 2016, WFM-IGP and its NGO partners sent an open letter to the General Assembly and heads of government on November 4, 2014.  The letter urged member states to act on this issue prior to the selection of the next SG, and offered several proposals for meaningful reform.  

To learn more about WFM-IGP's efforts to advocate for a better selection process for the Secretary-General, see our Civil Society Initiatives page or visit 1for7billion.org


On 6 June, 2011, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly announced his bid for re-election. After “humbly” offering himself for consideration, he expressed pride for the accomplishments of the international community under his first term in office: on issues such as climate change; humanitarian crises in Myanmar, Haiti, and Pakistan; and African conflict regions, for instance. He also cited the success of increasing female representation, as well as his leadership in improving transparency, accountability, and efficiency in the UN system. With regards to the future, he urged a “redoubl[ing]” of efforts towards the Millennium Development Goals and maintaining momentum on nuclear disarmament. [8]

No alternative candidates emerged to challenge Ban. He received the strong and widespread support of member states, including all members of the Security Council and all regional groups. Following his unanimous re-election in the General Assembly on 21 June 2011, his second term is set to begin on January 1, 2012.

The Security Council recommended the reappointment of the Secretary-General on Friday, 17 June 2011. On 21 June, the General Assembly unanimously reelected him for a second term by voice vote. Now that Ban has won his second term, it is up to the Secretary-General to prove whether he can rise above the criticisms of his first.


[1] Security Council Provisional Rules of Procedure, Rule 48.

[2] United Nations Charter, Article 97. Though confidentiality provisions in Rule 141 (of the GA Rules of Procedure) require that voting and discussions on the appointment be held in private, the GA has traditionally made the appointment in open session since 1946. (Information taken from Security Council Report No. 3, 2011)

[3] General Assembly Rules of Procedure, Rule 83.
[4] General Assembly Resolution 11, “Terms of Appointment of the Secretary-General,” 1st GA session (24 January 1946).

[5] Security Council Report, Special Research Report 24 May 2011, 2.

[6] Security Council Report, Special Research Report 24 May 2011, 4.

[7] Security Council Report, Special Research Report 24 May 2011, 2.


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