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Secretary-General of the
United Nations
Emblem of the United Nations.svg
Ban Ki-Moon Davos 2011 Cropped.jpg
Ban Ki-moon

since 1 January 2007
United Nations
United Nations Secretariat
Style Excellency
Residence Sutton Place
Seat U.N. Headquarters
New York City, New York, US
Nominator Security Council
Appointer General Assembly
Term length 5 years renewable
(traditionally limited to 2 terms)
Constituting instrument United Nations Charter
Inaugural holder Trygve Lie
Formation 26 June 1945
Deputy Deputy Secretary-General
Website www.un.org/sg

The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) is the head of the United Nations Secretariat, one of the principal organs of the United Nations. The Secretary-General also acts as the de facto spokesperson and leader of the United Nations.

The current Secretary-General is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who took office on 1 January 2007. His first term expired on 31 December 2011. He was re-elected, unopposed, to a second term on 21 June 2011.[1] His successor will be appointed by the General Assembly in 2016.


The Secretary-General was envisioned by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a "world moderator", but the vague definition provided by the UN Charter[2] left much room for interpretation by those who would later inhabit the position. According to the UN website, their roles are further defined as "diplomat and advocate, civil servant, and CEO".[3] Nevertheless, this more abstract description has not prevented the office holders from speaking out and playing important roles on global issues to various degrees.[4] Article 97 under Chapter XV of the UN Charter states that the Secretary-General shall be the "chief administrative officer" of the Organization, but does not dictate their specific obligations.

Responsibilities of the Secretary-General are further outlined in Articles 98 through 100, which states that they shall act as the officer "in all meetings of the General Assembly, of the Security Council, of the Economic and Social Council and the Trusteeship Council, and shall perform other functions as are entrusted to him by these organs". They are responsible, according to Article 99, for making an annual report to the General Assembly as well as notifying the Security Council on matters which "in their opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security". Other than these few guidelines, little else is dictated by the Charter. Interpretation of the Charter has varied between Secretaries-General, with some being much more active than others.

The Secretary-General is highly dependent upon the support of the member states of the UN. "The Secretary-General would fail if they did not take careful account of the concerns of Member States, but they 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."[3]

"The personal skills of the Secretary-General and their staff are crucial to their function. The central position of the UN headquarters in the international diplomatic network is also an important asset. The Secretary-General has the right to place any dispute on the provisional agenda of the Security Council. However, they work mostly behind the scenes if the members of the council are unwilling to discuss a dispute. Most of their time is spent on good offices missions and mediation, sometimes at the request of deliberative organs of the UN, but also frequently on their own initiative. Their function may be replaced or supplemented by mediation efforts by the major powers. UN peacekeeping missions are often closely linked to mediation (peacemaking). The recent improvement in relations between the permanent members of the Security Council (P5) has strengthened the role of the Secretary-General as the world's most reputable intermediary."[5]


The official residence of the Secretary-General is a townhouse in Sutton Place, Manhattan, in New York City, United States. The townhouse was built for Anne Morgan in 1921, and donated to the United Nations in 1972.[6]

Term and selection[edit]

The Secretariat Building is a 154 m (505 ft) tall skyscraper and the centerpiece of the Headquarters of the United Nations.

Secretaries General serve for five-year terms that can be renewed indefinitely, although none so far has held office for more than two terms.[7] The United Nations Charter provides for the Secretary-General to be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. As a result, the selection is subject to the veto of any of the five permanent Members of the Security Council. While the appointment and approval process of the Secretary-General is outlined in the UN Charter, specific guidelines have emerged regarding the term limits and selection process. These include a limit to two five-year terms, regional (continental) rotation of the appointee's national origin, and the appointee may not be a citizen of any of the Security Council's five permanent members.[8]

The United Nations Charter mentions the Secretary-General in Chapter XV, Articles 97 to 101. Article 97 gives the General Assembly the task of appointing the Secretary General. However, the candidate must be proposed by the Security Council. This implies that any Permanent Member of the Security Council could wield its veto in opposition of the recommendation. Most Secretaries-General are compromise candidates from middle powers and have little prior fame. Despite the Charter giving the General Assembly provisions to influence the selection process, the chosen Secretaries-General reflect that the selection process remains in the control of the P5.

The Secretary-General is also the chief administrative officer of the United Nations. Article 98 further states that the Secretary-General is further tasked with supervising the operations of the Security Council, General Assembly (GA), and the Economic and Social Council and is to "perform other such functions as are entrusted to him by these organizations". In short, this gives him or her the further responsibility of presiding over the meetings of these organs of the UN. Also contained in Article 98 is the responsibility of the Secretary-General to compile annual reports concerning the UN's progress, to be presented to the General Assembly.

The Secretary-General has the power to alert the GA and the Security Council of any event he or she sees as a security issue for the international system (according to Article 99). The Secretary-General, along with the Secretariat, is given the prerogative to exhibit no allegiance to any state but to only the United Nations organization: decisions must be made without regard to the state of origin.

In the early 1960s, Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev led an effort to abolish the Secretary-General position. The numerical superiority of the Western powers combined with the one state, one vote system meant that the Secretary-General would come from one of them, and would potentially be sympathetic towards the West. Khrushchev proposed to replace the Secretary-General with a three-person leading council (a "troika"): one member from the West, one from the Eastern Bloc, and one from the Non-Aligned powers. This idea failed because the neutral powers failed to back the Soviet proposal.[9][10]

The Security Council and General Assembly have taken steps to towards making the selection process more transparent and open in 2016 and has sent a letter to member states asking them to nominated candidates for the position. In practice, previous secretaries-general were chosen behind closed doors by the Security Council and then had their names submitted to General Assembly for ratification. No candidate has ever been rejected by the General Assembly.

General Assembly president Mogens Lykketoft intends to hold public meetings in early 2016 where general assembly members can question candidates for the position and advocates the General Assembly selecting a candidate.[11]

List of Secretaries-General[edit]

Portrait Secretary-General Dates in office Country of origin UN Regional Group Reason of withdrawal Ref.
Sr. Gladwyn Jebb.jpg Gladwyn Jebb 24 October 1945 –
1 February 1946
 United Kingdom Western European & Others Served as Acting Secretary-General until Lie's election. [12]
After World War II, he served as Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations in August 1945, being appointed Acting United Nations Secretary-General from October 1945 to February 1946 until the appointment of the first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie.
Trygve Lie.jpg Trygve Lie
Trygve Lie Signature.svg
2 February 1946 –
10 November 1952
 Norway Western European & Others Resigned. [13]
Lie, a foreign minister and former labour leader, was recommended by the Soviet Union to fill the post. After the UN involvement in the Korean War, the Soviet Union vetoed Lie's reappointment in 1951. The United States circumvented the Soviet Union's veto and recommended reappointment directly to the General Assembly. Lie was reappointed by a vote of 46 to 5, with eight abstentions. The Soviet Union remained hostile to Lie, and he resigned in 1952.[14]
Dag Hammarskjöld.jpg Dag Hammarskjöld
Sign Dag Hammarskjold.png
10 April 1953 –
18 September 1961
 Sweden Western European & Others Died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), while on a peacekeeping mission to the Congo. [15]
After a series of candidates were vetoed, Hammarskjöld emerged as an option that was acceptable to the Security Council. Hammarskjöld was re-elected unanimously to a second term in 1957. The Soviet Union was angered by Hammarskjöld's leadership of the UN during the Congo Crisis, and suggested that the position of Secretary-General be replaced by a troika, or three-man executive. Facing great opposition from the Western nations, the Soviet Union gave up on its suggestion. Hammarskjöld was killed in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1961.[14] U.S. President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld "the greatest statesman of our century".[16]
U-Thant 2.jpg U Thant
U Thant Signature.svg
30 November 1961 –
31 December 1971
 Burma Asia-Pacific Declined to stand for a third election. [17]
In the process of replacing Hammarskjöld, the developing world insisted on a non-European and non-American Secretary General. U Thant was nominated. However, due to opposition from the French (Thant had chaired a committee on Algerian independence) and the Arabs (Burma supported Israel), Thant was only appointed for the remainder of Hammarskjöld's term. Thant was the first Asian Secretary-General. The following year, on 30 November, Thant was unanimously re-elected to a new term ending on 3 November 1966. He was re-elected on 2 December 1966, finally for a full 5-year term, which would end on 31 December 1971. Thant did not seek a third election.[14]
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-M0921-014, Beglaubigungsschreiben DDR-Vertreter in UNO new.png Kurt Waldheim
Kurt Waldheim Signature.svg
1 January 1972 –
31 December 1981
 Austria Western European & Others China vetoed his third term. [18]
Waldheim launched a discreet but effective campaign to become the Secretary-General. Despite initial vetoes from China and the United Kingdom, in the third round, Waldheim was selected to become the new Secretary-General. In 1976, China initially blocked Waldheim's re-election, but it relented on the second ballot. In 1981, Waldheim's re-election for a third term was blocked by China, which vetoed his selection through 15 rounds. In the mid-1980s, it was revealed that a post-World War II UN War Crimes Commission had labeled Waldheim as a suspected war criminal – based on his involvement with the army of Nazi Germany. The files had been stored in the UN archive.[14]
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982).jpg Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
1 January 1982 –
31 December 1991
 Peru Latin American & Caribbean Did not stand for a third term. [19]
Pérez de Cuéllar was selected after a five-week deadlock between the re-election of Waldheim and China's candidate, Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania. Pérez de Cuéllar, a Peruvian diplomat, was a compromise candidate, and became the first Secretary-General from the Americas. He was re-elected unanimously in 1986.[14]
Naelachohanboutrosghali-2.jpg Boutros Boutros-Ghali
1 January 1992 –
31 December 1996
 Egypt African & Arab The United States vetoed his second term. [20]
The 102-member Non-Aligned Movement insisted that the next Secretary-General come from Africa. With a majority in the General Assembly and the support of China, the Non-Aligned Movement had the votes necessary to block any unfavourable candidate. The Security Council conducted five anonymous straw polls—a first for the council—and Boutros-Ghali emerged with 11 votes on the fifth round. In 1996, the United States vetoed the re-appointment of Boutros-Ghali, claiming he had failed in implementing necessary reforms to the UN.[14]
Kofi Annan.jpg Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan signature.svg
1 January 1997 –
31 December 2006
 Ghana African Retired after two full terms. [21]
On 13 December 1996, the Security Council recommended Annan.[22][23] He was confirmed four days later by the vote of the General Assembly.[24] He started his second term as Secretary-General on 1 January 2002.
Ban Ki-Moon Davos 2011 Cropped.jpg Ban Ki-moon
Ban Ki Moon Signature.svg
1 January 2007 –
 South Korea Asia-Pacific Incumbent. [25]
Ban became the first East Asian to be selected as the Secretary-General. He was unanimously elected to a second term by the General Assembly on 21 June 2011. His second term began on 1 January 2012.[26] Prior to his selection, he was the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Korea from January 2004 to November 2006. He is expected to step down as Secretary-General on 31 December 2016 when his second term ends.
UN Regional Group Secretaries-General Terms
Western European and Others 3 6
Eastern European Group 0 0
Latin American and Caribbean Group 1 2
Asia-Pacific Group 2 4
African Group 2 3

Living former Secretaries-General[edit]

As of February 2016, three former Secretaries-General are alive. The most recent death of a former Secretary-General is that of Kurt Waldheim (1972–81) on 14 June 2007.

Name Country Term of office Date of birth
Javier Pérez de Cuéllar  Peru
(1920-01-19) 19 January 1920 (age 96)
Boutros Boutros-Ghali  Egypt
(1922-11-14) 14 November 1922 (age 93)
Kofi Annan  Ghana
(1938-04-08) 8 April 1938 (age 77)
A map showing what nations have had a national serving as Secretary-General of the United Nations

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ban Ki-moon wins second-term as UN Secretary General". BBC News. 21 June 2011. 
  2. ^ UN Charter
  3. ^ a b "Role of the Secretary-General", The United Nations, Accessed 2 February 2012.
  4. ^ See Simon Chesterman (ed), Secretary or General? The UN Secretary-General in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  5. ^ "The UN Secretary-General and the Mediation of International Disputes". 
  6. ^ Teltsch, Kathleen. "Town House Offered to UN", New York Times, 15 July 1972. Accessed 27 December 2007.
  7. ^ "Secretary-General Appointment Process". United Nations. 
  8. ^ "Kofi Annan: Job at a Glance". PBS. Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved September 2014. 
  9. ^ "Nikita Khrushchev: Address to the UN General Assembly, Sept. 23 1960". Fordham University. 
  10. ^ "1960: Khrushchev anger erupts at UN". BBC On This Day (BBC). 29 September 1960. 
  11. ^ "U.N. pledges to remove secrecy around selection process for next secretary-general". Toronto Star. December 15, 2015. Retrieved December 15, 2015. 
  12. ^ Stout, David (26 October 1996). "Lord Gladwyn Is Dead at 96; Briton Helped Found the UN". New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2008. 
  13. ^ The United Nations: Trygve Haldvan Lie (Norway). Accessed 13 December 2006.
  14. ^ a b c d e f "An Historical Overview on the Selection of United Nations Secretaries-General" (PDF). UNA-USA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 October 2007. Retrieved 30 September 2007. 
  15. ^ The United Nations: Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden). Accessed 13 December 2006.
  16. ^ Linnér, S. (2007). Dag Hammarskjöld and the Congo crisis, 1960–61. Page 28. Uppsala University. (22 July 2008).
  17. ^ United Nations: U Thant (Myanmar). Accessed 13 December 2006.
  18. ^ The United Nations: Kurt Waldheim (Austria). Accessed 13 December 2006.
  19. ^ The United Nations: Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru). Accessed 13 December 2006.
  20. ^ The United Nations: Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt). Accessed 13 December 2006.
  21. ^ The United Nations: The Biography of Kofi A. Annan. Accessed 13 December 2006.
  22. ^ "Kofi Annan of Ghana recommended by Security Council for appointment as Secretary-General of United Nations" (Press release). United Nations. 13 December 1996. Retrieved 12 December 2006. 
  23. ^ Traub, James (2006). The Best Intentions. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 66–67. ISBN 978-0-374-18220-5. 
  24. ^ "General Assembly appoints Kofi Annan of Ghana as seventh Secretary-General" (Press release). United Nations. 17 December 1996. Retrieved 12 December 2006. 
  25. ^ "Ban Ki-moon is sworn in as next Secretary-General of the United Nations". United Nations. 
  26. ^ "Ban Ki-moon gets second term as UN chief". Globe and Mail. 22 June 2011. 

External links[edit]

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