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What the General Assembly Wants From the Secretary-General


General Assembly president and Ban Ki-moon
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, left, and Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser of Qatar, the current president of the General Assembly. The relationship between the General Assembly and the secretary-general involves a delicate power dance. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

BERLIN — When the United Nations has been fortunate to have a secretary-general who has great charisma and skills in settling conflicts, the world tends to consider him a figure with his own political status and powers. People like this idea because in difficult times they want to have an authoritative mediator, a moral guide.

But does this image correspond with the reality?

While it is certainly true that a strong secretary-general can acquire a political reputation and legitimacy through his capacity to act as spokesman for global values, he is only one element in the complex power system of the UN.

Above all, he is in many ways dependent on actions taken by the General Assembly, which in itself is an important body yet is hampered by its tendency to decide most things by consensus. In his role as chief administrator of the UN and head of the Secretariat, the secretary-general must rely on the assembly’s decisions regarding budget and personnel. In this respect, he encounters two conflicting forces: while the developed states want him to streamline the organization by cutting expenses and reducing UN personnel, the developing states want to prevent such steps because they benefit from UN activities and consider their nationals in the Secretariat an important source of information and influence.

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Even the charismatic Kofi Annan had to learn this lesson: when he presented to the General Assembly a modernizing and cost-saving reform program for the Secretariat in spring 2006, a proposal that would have equipped him with more powers in hiring people and in budget matters, the assembly rejected most of the proposals.

It told him “that setting the priorities of the United Nations is the prerogative of the Member States, as reflected in legislative decisions” and reaffirmed “its role in carrying out a thorough analysis and approval of human and financial resources and policies.” This basic conflict of interests and powers puts the assembly in the stronger position, making it clear why Secretariat reforms occur in tiny steps.

While the secretary-general has limited powers in terms of organizational structures, he has considerable political powers. He can suggest convening global conferences, working out international conventions or establishing UN bodies in his annual reports to the General Assembly or through other public statements before UN organs or in press conferences, thus reaching a global audience. This way, he can create enough pressure to make it likely for the General Assembly to deal with his proposals.

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In this regard, his success depends on his ability to present concepts that are acceptable to a large part of the assembly. This function – some scholars call it “norm entrepreneur” – is perhaps best illustrated by the introduction of such concepts as the Millennium Development Goals and the “responsibility to protect” in the assembly’s decision-making processes in the last decade or so.

Yet the most important function of the secretary-general is practiced far from the debates of the General Assembly, and this is his mediating role in political conflicts. It is very important that these efforts draw little attention, so it that the secretary-general and the parties in conflict have more latitude in negotiating.

This power to find facts, mediate and negotiate, perhaps the most essential of all his work, is found in Article 99 of the UN Charter. It provides the secretary-general with the authority “to bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” The provision gives the secretary-general the legal basis for a broad range of activities that he considers to be adequate in political conflicts.

The UN’s first two secretaries-general, Trygve Lie of Norway and Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, still had to fight to get approval from the Security Council and the General Assembly to exert a lot of discretion in their fact-finding and mediating activities. But soon the UN member states accepted these powers as central elements in the secretary-general’s job.

When the secretary-general has been successful in mediating a conflict, the assembly comes into the play again, as “political lawyer,” confirming the settlement.

The UN works best if both the General Assembly and the secretary-general accept the limits of their own roles, respect the powers of the other UN organs and do not try to expand their scope of powers at the expense of the other. If things go well at the UN, then the secretary-general provides the assembly with inspiring ideas to be taken up by the latter, while the assembly provides the former with the resources to do his work well.

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This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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