Secretary-General of the United Nations

Last updated

of the United Nations
Emblem of the United Nations.svg
Flag of the United Nations.svg
Antonio Guterres crop.jpg
Flag of Portugal.svg António Guterres

since 1 January 2017 (2017-01-01)
United Nations Secretariat
Style His Excellency
Member of Secretariat
General Assembly
Residence Sutton Place, New York City
Seat United Nations Headquarters, New York City, United States
Nominator Security Council
Appointer General Assembly
Term length Five years, renewable (traditionally limited to two terms)
Constituting instrument United Nations Charter
Inaugural holder Gladwyn Jebb
as acting Secretary-General (24 October 1945)
Trygve Lie
as first Secretary-General (2 February 1946)
Formation24 October 1945
Deputy Deputy Secretary-General

The secretary-general of the United Nations (UNSG or SG) is the chief administrative officer of the United Nations and head of the United Nations Secretariat, one of the six principal organs of the United Nations.


The role of the secretary-general and of the Secretariat is laid out by Chapter XV (Articles 97 to 101) of the United Nations Charter. However, the office's qualifications, selection process and tenure are open to interpretation; they have been established by custom. [1]

Selection and term of office

The Secretariat Building is a 154-metre-tall (505 ft) skyscraper and the centerpiece of the Headquarters of the United Nations. Newyork unitednations.JPG
The Secretariat Building is a 154-metre-tall (505 ft) skyscraper and the centerpiece of the Headquarters of the United Nations.

The secretary-general is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. As the recommendation must come from the Security Council, any of the five permanent members of the council can veto a nomination. Most secretaries-general are compromise candidates from middle powers and have little prior fame.

Unofficial qualifications for the job have been set by precedent in previous selections. The appointee may not be a citizen of any of the Security Council's five permanent members. [2] The General Assembly resolution 51/241 in 1997 stated that, in the appointment of "the best candidate", due regard should be given to regional (continental) rotation of the appointee's national origin and to gender equality, [3] :5 although no woman has yet served as secretary-general. All appointees to date have been career diplomats. [4]

The length of the term is discretionary, but all secretaries-general since 1971 have been appointed to five-year terms. Every secretary-general since 1961 has been re-selected for a second term, with the exception of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was vetoed by the United States in the 1996 selection. There is a term limit of two full terms, established when China, in the 1981 selection, cast a record 16 vetoes against a third term for Kurt Waldheim. No secretary-general since 1981 has attempted to secure a third term.

The selection process is opaque and is often compared to a papal conclave. [5] [6] Since 1981, the Security Council has voted in secret in a series of straw polls; it then submits the winning candidate to the General Assembly for ratification. No candidate has ever been rejected by the General Assembly, and only once, in 1950, has a candidate been voted upon despite a UNSC veto. [7]

In 2016, the General Assembly and the Security Council sought nominations and conducted public debates for the first time. However, the Security Council voted in private and followed the same process as previous selections, leading the president of the General Assembly to complain that it "does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency". [8]

Powers and duties

The role of secretary-general is described as combining the functions and responsibilities of an advocate, diplomat, civil servant, and CEO. [9] The UN Charter designates the secretary-general as the "chief administrative officer" of the UN and allows them to perform "such other functions as are entrusted" by other United Nations organs. The Charter also empowers the secretary-general to inform the Security Council of "any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security". These provision has been interpreted as providing broad leeway for officeholders to serve a variety of roles as suited to their preferences, skill set, or the circumstances. [4]

The secretary-general's routine duties include overseeing the activities and duties of the Secretariat; attending sessions with United Nations bodies; consulting with world leaders, government officials, and other stakeholders; and travelling the world to engage with global constituents and bring attention to certain international issues. [9] The secretary-general publishes an annual report on the work of the UN, which includes an assessment of its activities and an outline future priorities. The secretary-general is also Chairman of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), a body composed of the heads of all UN funds, programmes and specialized agencies, which meets twice a year to discuss substantive and management issues facing the United Nations System. [9]

Many of the secretary-general's powers are informal and left open to individual interpretation; some appointees have opted for more activist roles, while others have been more technocratic or administrative. [4] The secretary-general is often reliant upon the use of their "good offices", described as "steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading". [9] Consequently, observers have variably described the office as the "world's most visible bully pulpit" or as the "world's moderator". [10] [4] Examples include Dag Hammarskjöld's promotion of an armistice between the warring parties of Arab-Israel conflict, Javier Perez de Cuellar's negotiation of a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, and U Thant's role in deescalating the Cuban Missile Crisis. [4]


The official residence of the secretary-general is a townhouse at 3 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. [11]

List of secretaries-general

Dates in officeCountry of origin UN regional group Reason of withdrawalRef.
Sr. Gladwyn Jebb.jpg Gladwyn Jebb
24 October 1945 –
2 February 1946
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg   United Kingdom Western European & othersServed 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.
1 UtenriksministerTrygveLie.jpg Trygve Lie
Trygve Lie Signature.svg
2 February 1946 –
10 November 1952
Flag of Norway.svg  Norway Western European & othersResigned. [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]
2 Dag Hammarskjold.jpg Dag Hammarskjöld
Dag Hammarskjold signature.svg
10 April 1953 –
18 September 1961
Flag of Sweden.svg  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. He 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 died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1961. [14] U.S. President John F. Kennedy called him "the greatest statesman of our century". [16] Hammarskjöld was posthumously awarded the 1961 Nobel Prize for Peace.
U Thant at UN press conference.PNG U Thant
U Thant Signature.svg
3 November 1961 –
30 November 1962
Flag of Burma (1948-1974).svg   Burma Asia & PacificServed as Acting Secretary-General after Hammarskjöld's death until Thant's election as Secretary-General. [17]
330 November 1962 
31 December 1971
Declined to stand for a third election.
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 (Myanmar supported Israel), Thant was only appointed for the remainder of Hammarskjöld's term. He was the first Asian secretary-general. The following year, on 30 November, Thant was unanimously re-elected to a full term ending on 3 November 1966. At the General Assembly session on 2 December 1966, Thant was reappointed as Secretary-General by a unanimous vote of the Security Council. His five-year term ended on 31 December 1971. Thant did not seek a third election. [14] Thant is the only former secretary-general whose home country had not been in the Security Council in his term.
4 Kurt Waldheim 1971b.jpg Kurt Waldheim
Kurt Waldheim Signature.svg
1 January 1972 –
31 December 1981
Flag of Austria.svg  Austria Western European & othersChina 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; although the official reasons by the Chinese government for the veto of Waldheim remain unclear, some estimates from the time believe it to be in part due to China's belief that a Third World country should give a nomination, particularly from the Americas; [19] however, there also remained the question of his possible involvement in Nazi war crimes. [20] From 1986 to 1992, Waldheim served as President of Austria, making him the first former secretary-general to rise to the position of head of state. In 1985, 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]
5 Javier Perez de Cuellar (1982).jpg Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
Javier Perez de Cuellar (firma).jpg
1 January 1982 –
31 December 1991
Flag of Peru.svg  Peru Latin American
& Caribbean
Did not stand for a third term. [21]
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 who a decade earlier had served as President of the UN Security Council during his time as Peruvian Ambassador to the UN, was a compromise candidate. He became the first and thus far only secretary-general from the Americas. He was re-elected unanimously in 1986. [14]
6 Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1980).jpg Boutros Boutros-Ghali
Signature of Boutros Boutros-Ghali.svg
1 January 1992 –
31 December 1996
Flag of Egypt.svg  Egypt AfricanThe United States vetoed his second term. [22]
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]
7 Kofi Annan 2012 (cropped).jpg Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan signature.svg
1 January 1997 –
31 December 2006
Flag of Ghana.svg  Ghana AfricanRetired after two full terms. [23]
On 13 December 1996, the Security Council recommended Annan. [24] [25] He was confirmed four days later by the vote of the General Assembly. [26] He started his second term as Secretary-General on 1 January 2002. Kofi Annan and the United Nations were the recipients of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Peace.
8 Ban Ki-moon April 2015.jpg Ban Ki-moon
(born 1944)
Ban Ki Moon Signature.svg
1 January 2007 –
31 December 2016
Flag of South Korea.svg   South Korea Asia & PacificRetired after two full terms. [27]
Ban became the first East Asian to be selected as the secretary-general and the second Asian overall after U Thant. He was unanimously elected to a second term by the General Assembly on 21 June 2011. His second term began on 1 January 2012. [28] Prior to his selection, he was the Foreign Minister of South Korea from January 2004 to November 2006.
9 Antonio Guterres crop.jpg António Guterres
(born 1949)
Assinatura Antonio Guterres.svg
1 January 2017 –
Flag of Portugal.svg  Portugal Western European & others
Guterres is the first former head of government to become Secretary-General, and the first secretary-general born after the establishment of the United Nations. He was Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002. He has also been President of the Socialist International (1999–2005) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2005–2015).
A map showing which nations have had a national serving as Secretary-General of the United Nations UNSG map.png
A map showing which nations have had a national serving as Secretary-General of the United Nations
World location map (equirectangular 180).svg
Red pog.svg
Red pog.svg
Birthplaces of Secretaries-General of the United Nations


#Secretary-GeneralBornAge at ascension
(first term)
Time in office
Age at retirement
(last term)
-Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Gladwyn Jebb Apr 25, 190045 years, 182 days
Oct 24, 1945
102 days45 years, 283 days
Feb 2, 1946
Oct 24, 199696 years, 182 days
1Flag of Norway.svg Trygve Lie Jul 16, 189649 years, 201 days
Feb 2, 1946
6 years, 283 days56 years, 117 days
Nov 10, 1952
Dec 30, 196872 years, 167 days
2Flag of Sweden.svg Dag Hammarskjöld Jul 29, 190547 years, 255 days
Apr 10, 1953
8 years, 162 days56 years, 51 days
Sep 18, 1961
Sep 18, 196156 years, 51 days
3Flag of Burma (1948-1974).svg U Thant Jan 22, 190952 years, 285 days
Nov 3, 1961
11 years, 59 days63 years, 344 days
Dec 31, 1972
Nov 25, 197465 years, 307 days
4Flag of Austria.svg Kurt Waldheim Dec 21, 191853 years, 11 days
Jan 1, 1972
10 years, 0 days63 years, 10 days
Dec 31, 1981
Jun 14, 200788 years, 175 days
5Flag of Peru.svg Javier Pérez de Cuéllar Jan 19, 192061 years, 347 days
Jan 1, 1982
10 years, 0 days71 years, 346 days
Dec 31, 1991
Mar 4, 2020100 years, 45 days
6Flag of Egypt.svg Boutros Boutros-Ghali Nov 14, 192269 years, 48 days
Jan 1, 1992
5 years, 0 days74 years, 47 days
Dec 31, 1996
Feb 16, 201693 years, 94 days
7Flag of Ghana.svg Kofi Annan Apr 8, 193858 years, 268 days
Jan 1, 1997
10 years, 0 days68 years, 267 days
Dec 31, 2006
Aug 18, 201880 years, 132 days
8Flag of South Korea.svg Ban Ki-moon Jun 13, 194462 years, 202 days
Jan 1, 2007
10 years, 0 days72 years, 201 days
Dec 31, 2016
(living)77 years, 129 days
9Flag of Portugal.svg António Guterres Apr 30, 194967 years, 246 days
Jan 1, 2017
(incumbent)(living)72 years, 173 days

By regional group

UN Regional Group Secretaries-GeneralTerms
Eastern European Group 00
Asia-Pacific Group 24
African Group 23

Living former secretary-general

As of October2021, Ban Ki-moon is the only former secretary-general currently living. The most recent death of a former secretary-general was that of Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (1982–1991) on 4 March 2020, aged 100. [29]

See also

Further reading

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1991 United Nations Secretary-General selection

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1981 United Nations Secretary-General selection

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1971 United Nations Secretary-General selection

A United Nations Secretary-General selection was held in 1971 to succeed U Thant, who was stepping down after two full terms. Three candidates received enough votes in the Security Council to be selected Secretary-General: Carlos Ortiz de Rozas of Argentina, Kurt Waldheim of Austria, and Max Jakobson of Finland. However, all of the frontrunners were vetoed in the first two rounds of voting. In the third round, Waldheim accidentally escaped a triple-veto when three permanent members failed to coordinate their votes and all abstained. As a result, Kurt Waldheim was selected Secretary-General of the United Nations for a term starting 1 January 1972.

1950 United Nations Secretary-General selection

The United Nations Secretary-General selection of 1950 took place as the Cold War turned hot in the Korean War. The Soviet Union vetoed Trygvie Lie's second term and offered to vote for any other candidate. However, the United States insisted that Lie had to continue in office as Secretary-General, pressuring its allies to abstain on all other candidates. When a Latin American candidate appeared to have enough votes to win, the United States threatened to use its veto for the first time. After a second round of voting with no candidates receiving the required majority, the Security Council informed the General Assembly that it had been unable to agree on a recommendation. The General Assembly then extended Lie's term for three years.


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