This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, but will also be a time of transition for the organization. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) come to an end this year, an occasion that calls for critical reflection as the United Nations prepares to launch the MDGs’ successors, the Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, as Ban Ki-moon, current UN secretary-general, nears the end of his second term in the office, we must study that post, its role, and the way Ban’s successor will be chosen at the end of 2016. Described by Trygve Lie, the first man to hold the position, as the most difficult job in the world, the role has since grown more difficult, and more influential. But for such an important office, the post of the UN secretary-general and the politics surrounding it receive surprisingly little attention and analysis in the international media. What, exactly, does the role entail? Who might be appointed as secretary-general next year? How will the person be chosen, and, most crucially, is the selection process fair?

Chapter XV of the UN Charter says little about the selection of this crucial position, only that, “the secretary-general shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. He shall be the chief administrative officer of the Organization.” Because the charter does not stipulate specific processes for the selection of a secretary-general or an explicit description of the duties and power associated with the position, both have developed over time as norms have emerged and become codified.

The few provisions made by the Charter leave significant room for interpretation and expansion of the position, and each secretary-general has had to respond to the political landscape of their time. Much of the role is shaped by discretion and judgment; the secretary-general must balance their responsibility to the concerns of member states against the maintenance of the impartiality that has led to the office being called “the world’s most reputable intermediary.” In fact, the role is often described through juxtaposition: diplomat and advocate, world moderator and chief administrative officer, independent political force and civil servant, activist and bureaucrat, even secretary and general. Former Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar warned his successors against two extremes: in inflating the role, and by vanity or wishful thinking overstep its bounds, or limiting the role, and in an effort to stick to the letter of the Charter and avoid controversy accomplish nothing. A successful secretary-general must be patient but bold, possessing both sound managerial and diplomatic skills.

A secretary-general is uniquely placed to use their “good offices” to act as a mediator in international disputes, largely due to the role’s high degree of autonomy. But this authority of the secretary-general to act without explicit Security Council authorization was won only gradually. It took decades of careful diplomacy and good timing to grow this independence, which, though it can be an asset to the international community, has occasionally drawn the rebuke of more powerful member states who may be uncomfortable with the idea of the leader of the United Nations as an independent actor.

Another function of the role is its ability to direct the attention of the United Nations. The Charter explicitly requests that the secretary-general report to the General Assembly annually, and this report has grown to be used as a tool to influence conversation and draw attention to particular causes. The Charter also empowers the secretary-general to bring any matter thought to threaten international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council, and this has been another avenue for secretaries-general to guide UN efforts.

Regarding the selection of secretaries-general, beyond the explicit words of the Charter, one of the most firmly established norms is the principle of regional rotation, by which efforts are made to ensure appointees’ national origins are distributed across key regional groupings. This geographic representation has been a vital part of the survival of the United Nations in the face of 70 years of challenges. Another key norm is that nationals of any of the five permanent members of the Security Council are considered ineligible, and that even candidates from large countries are routinely overlooked, even vetoed, both for the sake of impartiality and to avoid a power imbalance.

Looking to the next election, we can expect these conventions to be upheld. There are five regional groupings within the United Nations, through which consensus is achieved in voting matters, council positions within the organization are allocated, and the post of the President of the General Assembly rotates. These five are the African Group, the Asia-Pacific Group, the Latin-American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), the Eastern European Group, and the Western European and Others Group (WEOG). It is unlikely that the post will return to the Asia-Pacific Group or African Group, as these groups provided the previous three secretaries-general: South Korea’s Ban Ki-moon, Ghana’s Ko Annan, and Egypt’s Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Nor is it likely that the office will return to GRULAC, as Peru’s Pérez de Cuéllar held the post just prior.

There has been much talk that the next candidate will hail from Eastern Europe, as the region has not yet had a representative head the United Nations. It is likely that the Security Council will strive to find a suitable person from this region, but it will be extremely difficult to find one acceptable to all five permanent members of the Security Council, the P5, who each have a veto—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There are few Eastern European nations that are still in good standing with both the East and West after the past year’s conflicts over Crimea and greater Ukraine, and this hurdle could prove insurmountable. If there proves to be such a deadlock, WEOG would be next highest on the list.

There are few Eastern European nations that are still in good standing with both the East and West after the past year’s conflicts over Crimea and greater Ukraine, and this hurdle could prove insurmountable.


As critical as regional rotation is, it has already been eclipsed in popular conversation by voices calling for a woman to be elected to the role, a move that, to many, seems long overdue. The election of a female secretary-general would be a considerable step forward in terms of equitable representation and could also set an example for that majority of nations who have not yet made a female their head of state. In this age of social media, with many strong female contenders in the field, this year could be the one where enough momentum is generated to see this come to fruition in the Security Council. There are certainly several major campaigns working towards this goal, such as Equality Now, an organization that “advocates for the rights of women and girls around the world,” and a recent group of UN member states, including Germany and Japan, who have signed on to declare that “the time has come for a woman to hold the highest position.” Even Ban Ki-Moon himself has expressed several times that it is “high time” for such a move.

The process of nomination and campaigning is not clearly defined, and has been different for every candidate and round of selection. Cuéllar, for example, considered political campaigning unseemly and refused to lobby for the role for fear of risking later bias, though Ban would later make ministerial visits to each of the 15 countries on the Security Council in 2006. However they choose to approach the election, one commonality in past elections is that candidacy is announced early.

Among the names already circulating as potential candidates for next year’s election, there are some strong contenders indeed, though not all would be likely to avoid veto from the P5. Lithuania’s current President Dalia Grybauskait? might be out of the race before it has begun, as her country’s reputation as one of the most pro-US in that region would likely garner a Russian veto. Word is that Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva, who recently rose to the role of European Commissioner, would not be given leave from that office to pursue the role of secretary-general. Croatia’s foreign minister Vesna Pusi? has expressed her intention to run, and having overseen her country’s accession to the European Union in 2013, and with experience in conflict resolution, has the skills to do the job, though her history of activism with sexual and gender minorities is unlikely to score points with Russia.

Perhaps the most promising candidate to hail from Eastern Europe is Bulgarian Irina Bokova, the incumbent director-general of United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). She was educated in both Russia and the United States, and comes from a country in the rare position of being on relatively good terms with both powers. Further, she speaks English, French, Spanish, and Russian, as well as her native Bulgarian. When combined with her excellent diplomatic track record and the nomination of her government, all signs point to Bokova being an early front-runner to watch.

If no compromise candidate from Eastern Europe can be found, the most likely leader to unite the P5 may well be former New Zealand Prime Minister and current administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Helen Clark. In her role at the UNDP, Clark oversaw the MDGs, and is instrumental to the current transition to the Sustainable Development Goals. She heads a massive portfolio of climate change projects in 140 countries, has worked on improving crisis response and HIV/AIDS programs, supported democratization, and has seen the UNDP rise to number one in the Aid Transparency Index last year. New Zealand has strong relationships with China, Russia, and the Western P5 powers, and, to top it off, has a temporary seat on the Security Council for 2015-2016.

Much of the outcome of the upcoming election will be shaped by the voting procedures, which have faced criticism in recent years for their lack of transparency. During the first ever session of the General Assembly in 1946, a resolution was passed that outlined the voting procedure that is still observed today: “It would be desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only for the consideration of the General Assembly, and for debate on the nomination in the General Assembly to be avoided. Both nomination and appointment should be discussed at private meetings, and a vote in either the Security Council or the General Assembly, if taken, should be by secret ballot.”

These features have drawn criticism from highly prominent groups and recently many of these voices have united under the banner of the “1 for 7 Billion” campaign. This movement calls for 10 reforms: better advertisement for the role, formal criteria for eligibility, a clear timetable, an official list of candidates, regular updates on selection progress, policy platforms, open candidate debate sessions, no promises to countries for senior appointments, the Security Council presenting at least two candidates to the General Assembly, and a single, non-renewable term of seven years.

Many of these reforms are important, and while they all sound like necessary steps forward, there are several amongst them that should be considered more carefully. For instance, while the Security Council recommending several candidates seems democratic and fair, there are serious dangers of the member states being split in their votes, creating a sense of division, and undermining the authority of the successful candidate before they can properly get started. One of the reasons the voice of the organization’s head has so much weight is that it is known to be backed by the body, and it is important for the United Nations to be truly seen as united. The current system, in place since 1981, of a series of anonymous straw polls in the Security Council by which members indicate “encouragement” or “discouragement”, helps to avoid a split vote and bring the members together behind a single candidate to be presented to the Assembly. Even criticisms of the huge influence of the P5 in the selection of the secretary-general must be weighed against the opposite outcome—that of a leader without the support of the Security Council, who becomes a powerless figurehead bound by vetoes.

There are serious dangers of the member states being split in their votes, creating a sense of division, and undermining the authority of the successful candidate.


For this consensus approach to work, it is far better if these discussions are not played out publicly, though this is at the cost of transparency. When the next secretary-general is elected, the Security Council will have to weigh unity against this transparency. However the next year plays out, it is important that the process is well thought through, as this decision will be one of the biggest the United Nations makes this decade.

And whoever is elected next year, they will have their hands full. Some of today’s pressing international concerns may still be unresolved when they come into office, like the conflict in the Ukraine or the brutalities of Islamic State militants. These sorts of high-profile issues will test the mettle of the next leader, and may establish, or undermine, their credibility early on. Broader trends like climate change, food security, non-proliferation efforts, cyber-terrorism, and disaster and pandemic preparedness, will be another focus for the United Nations over the next decade. And within the United Nations itself, there is constant need for reform to modernize the 70 year-old organization. We may see changes in the Security Council, budgets, and peacekeeping missions. The secretary-general will be faced with all of these issues, as well as the many others that will undoubtedly arise. Given these challenges, it is imperative that the P5 not let their narrow interests get in the way of the search for the best candidate, because the world needs a strong United Nations, and the United Nations needs a strong leader.