News Focus: António Guterres, new UN Secretary-General

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Previous Secretaries-General

Under the Charter of the United Nations, the Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. With Mr Guterres taking office on January first 2017, Mr Ban will step down after serving two terms.

Ban's predecessors as Secretary-General were: Kofi Annan (Ghana) who held office from January 1997 to December 2006; Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), who held office from January 1992 to December 1996; Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar (Peru), who served from January 1982 to December 1991; Kurt Waldheim (Austria), who held office from January 1972 to December 1981; U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), who served from November 1961, when he was appointed acting Secretary-General (he was formally appointed Secretary-General in November 1962) to December 1971;Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), who served from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in Africa in September 1961; and Trygve Lie (Norway), who held office from February 1946 to his resignation in November 1952.

How is the Secretary-General appointed?

The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the Security Council. The Secretary-General's selection is therefore subject to the veto of any of the five permanent members of the Security Council.

Although there is technically no limit to the number of five-year terms a Secretary-General may serve, none so far has held office for more than two terms.

The role of the Secretary-General

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.

International peace day - be the change you want to see in this world - UN Photo/Helena Mulkerns

The Charter describes the Secretary-General as "chief administrative officer" of the Organization, who shall act in that capacity and perform "such other functions as are entrusted" to him or her by the Security Council, General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and other United Nations organs. The Charter also empowers the Secretary-General to "bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security". These guidelines both define the powers of the office and grant it considerable scope for action. The Secretary-General would fail if he did not take careful account of the concerns of Member States, but he must also uphold the values and moral authority of the United Nations, and speak and act for peace, even at the risk, from time to time, of challenging or disagreeing with those same Member States.

There is the voice of millions, not only of a few, for theirs is the common hope of mankind - Trygve Lie

That creative tension accompanies the Secretary-General through day-to-day work that includes attendance at sessions of United Nations bodies; consultations with world leaders, government officials, and others; and worldwide travel intended to keep him in touch with the peoples of the Organization's Member States and informed about the vast array of issues of international concern that are on the Organization's agenda. Each year, the Secretary-General issues a report on the work of the United Nations that appraises its activities and outlines future priorities. The Secretary-General is also Chairman of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), which brings together the Executive Heads of all UN funds, programmes and specialized agencies twice a year in order to further coordination and cooperation in the entire range of substantive and management issues facing the United Nations System.

One of the most vital roles played by the Secretary-General is the use of his "good offices" -- steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading.

Procedures for the appointment of the Secretary-General

Article 97 of the UN Charter provides that, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In other words, Article 97 creates a two-stage process: a recommendation by the Security Council followed by a decision by the General Assembly.

While nothing in the Charter prevents the Security Council from recommending more than one candidate, General Assembly resolution 11 (I) of 24 January 1946 stipulates that it is desirable for the Security Council to “proffer one candidate only” and that has been the consistent practice.

The Security Council adopts a resolution setting out its recommendation. This resolution has consistently been adopted at a private meeting of the Council, since rule 48 of the Provisional rules of procedure of the Security Council states, “Any recommendation to the General Assembly regarding the appointment of the Secretary-General shall be discussed and decided at a private meeting”. In years when a number of candidates are being considered, the Council will conduct balloting before adopting its resolution. In years when only one candidate is being considered, the Council’s normal practice is to proceed directly, without prior balloting, to adopting a resolution, usually by acclamation.

Yes, General Assembly resolution 11 (I) of 24 January 1946 specifies that the recommendation of a Secretary-General by the Security Council is a “substantive decision” and that therefore the negative vote of a Permanent Member can prevent the adoption of a draft resolution setting out a recommendation.

The first step is for the Council President to consult informally with the other Council members and determine a date for holding the private meeting to adopt the Council’s recommendation. Once that date has been agreed by the Council members, the Council President writes a letter informing the Assembly President, who in turn informs the General Assembly Member States. It is common also for the two Presidents to meet in person to discuss preparations for the election.

Following adoption of the Security Council’s recommendation, the practice is for the Council President to write a letter informing the Assembly President.

The common practice is for the Council President to go to the press Stakeout following the adoption of the Council’s recommendation to brief the press.

When adopting its resolution, the practice of the Council has been to specify the term of office for its recommended candidate, and the Assembly acts similarly when adopting its resolution appointing the Secretary-General. Except for some adjustments during the early years of the United Nations, the terms of office of Secretaries-General have been fixed at five years.

There is no requirement for recommended candidates to be endorsed by the regional groups. Nonetheless, it is a common practice for those groups to write a letter to the UN membership in support of a candidate, and such letters are brought to the attention of the Council members.

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