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The Next UN Secretary-General: Views From UN Watchers


Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, and Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, at a press conference in Berlin on March 8, 2016. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO
Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, at a press briefing in Berlin in March 2016. A new survey from FUNDS found Merkel to be the most-preferred candidate among respondents, although so far she is not a nominee. EVAN SCHNEIDER/UN PHOTO

The results of the latest FUNDS survey of global experts, conducted during the winter of 2015-16, contains clear messages about the next United Nations secretary-general: s/he should be a world leader with integrity and political courage who will prioritize UN reform; and the election process should be open and transparent.

There is more room for genuine leadership and independent initiatives by the UN’s executive head than many believe. Thus, the election of the ninth UN secretary-general (SG) between now and December 2016 is crucial to the future of the organization. The next leader will either help steer the UN back to a more central position in world affairs or preside over its continuing marginalization. Choosing the right person with the right qualities is essential.

In the UN Charter, there is a single sentence devoted to the election of the world’s most senior diplomat: “appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” In practice, SGs have always been chosen by a cabal of the five permanent members of the Security Council (United States, Russia, China, France and United Kingdom) on a no-objection (no veto) basis, while adhering to an informal regional rotation. Female candidates have rarely been put forward, and there has never been a female SG. This process eschews detailed examination of the merits of individual candidates and is manifestly undemocratic for a position of such importance.

A better process is clearly needed and some welcome changes are being put in place for the next election, responding in part to the clamor for change from movements such as the 1 for 7 billion campaign and growing media attention. In September 2015, the General Assembly, or GA, asked the presidents of the Security Council and the GA to issue a joint letter to all member states inviting the nomination of candidates for SG, and requesting supporting documents including full curricula vitae. The letter was issued in December 2015 and a series of “informal dialogues” with the nominated candidates are being conducted by the GA from April 2016.

To continue reading this briefing, click here.

Fiona Curtin is the Communications Adviser of FUNDS, helping to coordinate the project’s communications and social media activities. She worked for more than 10 years at the UN and in the NGO sector in Geneva before becoming an independent consultant in London, where for the last five years she has been involved in a wide range of organizations and institutes focusing primarily on human rights and sustainable development.

Thomas G. Weiss is Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center; Distinguished Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs; and Global Eminent Scholar at Korea’s Kyung Hee University. His recent books include “The ‘Third’ United Nations” (with Tatiana Carayannis).

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Stephen Browne spent more than 30 years working in the UN system and now lectures on the UN. This essay is adapted from his latest book, “Aid and Influence: Patronage, Power and Politics,” published by Routledge in 2022.


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Loraine Sievers
7 years ago

Excellent briefing! However, it states that “In practice, SGs have always been chosen by a cabal of the [P5] on a no-objection (no veto) basis . . .”. Just to clarify, there were actual vetoes (as opposed to “discouragements” in a straw poll) during the appointment processes in 1946, 1950, 1953, 1971, 1976, 1981, and 1996. Security Council Report has a convenient reference table on this:

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