The Secretary-General We Deserve?

The eight secretaries-general to date. Images courtesy of, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, UN archives (U Thant and Waldheim), UNESCO,, the Telegraph, and

The eight secretaries-general to date. Images courtesy of, Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, UN archives (U Thant and Waldheim), UNESCO,, the Telegraph, and

[Global Governance]

The Charter of the United Nations frequently maps out a chasm between its aspirations and the means to achieve them. War is to be renounced, human rights are to be advanced, and development to be a priority. Yet peace is beholden to the five permanent members of the Security Council, human rights obligations remain limited to voluntary commitments taken on by states, and development is the paradigm example of an unfunded mandate.

It would be tempting to put the office of Secretary-General in this category. The “world’s diplomat” has few powers, minimal staff, and his or her influence is greatest in orphaned conflicts and marginal causes. The first Secretary-General, the Norwegian Trygve Lie who served from 1946 to 1952, memorably welcomed his successor to New York’s Idlewild Airport with the words: “You are about to enter the most impossible job on this earth.” Within the Organization, the position is routinely abbreviated to “SG”; Kofi Annan, the seventh Secretary-General (1997–2006), joked that this sometimes might as well stand for “scapegoat.”

Yet the Charter is more honest about the Secretary-General than some of its other aspirations. Article 97 defines the role as being that of “chief administrative officer” of the Organization. He or she is to be appointed by the General Assembly “upon the recommendation of the Security Council,” giving the most powerful countries an effective veto over the selection process. Powers are limited to carrying out the functions ascribed to him or her, with what appears on paper to be only a modest addition: the ability to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” Since the Secretary-General has never enjoyed the support of an intelligence service, that opinion has rarely been better informed than the members of the Council. The power has been invoked in terms only twice.

As the United Nations prepares to select its ninth Secretary-General, who will succeed Ban Ki-moon after his term concludes on 31 December 2016, it is an appropriate time to reflect on the nature of the office, the eight men who have held it, and the manner in which the ninth occupant of the thirty-eighth floor of UN Headquarters in New York will be chosen. Encouraged by social media and a series of campaigns for greater transparency and diversity in the selection process, there has been much optimism that this time will be different. Most of that optimism — but not all — is misplaced.


The final version of this article is now available here and may be cited as Simon Chesterman, “The Secretary-General We Deserve?”, Global Governance (2015), Vol. 21, No. 4, pp. 505-513.

If you have difficulty accessing the above, the draft manuscript is available on SSRN, please click here to download it.