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Updated on 2 April 2018


Section 3:   Resolutions


Extending the term of Secretary-General U Thant:  “The case of the missing resolution”


On 18 September 1961, a tragic plane crash killed Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden) and fifteen others. 


Pursuant to Article 97 of the UN Charter, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”  However, the Council did not act right away to recommend a new Secretary-General.  This was because the void created by Hammarskjöld’s untimely death brought to the surface conflicting conceptions among the Western, Eastern and non-aligned Member States as to the very nature of the office. 


It was at this time that the Soviet Union revived its proposal for a three-person executive arrangement, or “troika”.  After this proposal met with opposition from the Western and non-aligned States, the Soviets agreed to retain the Charter provision for a single Secretary-General, but on condition that his/her key advisers should represent a political balance.  This compromise paved the way for the Council to take its decision on 3 November 1961.[1]


Nonetheless, the Security Council did not recommend the appointment of a new Secretary-General for a full term.  Rather, the preamble of its resolution 168 (1961) stated that the Council had “considered the problem of filling the office of Secretary-General for the term fixed by the General Assembly, expiring 10 April 1963”.  That is, the Council took the view that the next incumbent should serve out the remainder of the term for which Hammarskjöld had been appointed.  Accordingly, in its operative paragraph, resolution 168 (1961) stated that the Council recommended that the Assembly appoint U Thant (Burma) “as acting Secretary-General of the United Nations for the unexpired portion of the term previously fixed by the General Assembly” (our emphasis).  This the General Assembly did on 3 November 1961, the same day as the adoption of the Council’s resolution.


U Thant’s first year in office was tumultuous, as UN peacekeepers confronted secessionists in the Congo, the movement for decolonization accelerated, fighting erupted along the India-China border, the United States increased its military involvement in Viet Nam, and the Cuban missile crisis arose.  Throughout these and other challenges, Thant carried out the responsibilities of his office without alienating any of the major blocs.  Consequently, support began to build for extending Thant’s term in office beyond what would have been the expiry of Hammarskjöld’s term on 10 April 1963.


Thus on 30 November 1962, the Security Council held its 1026th meeting, in private as stipulated by its procedural rule 48.[2]  As recorded in the communiqué of the meeting, issued pursuant to procedural rule 55, the Council “unanimously decided to recommend the General Assembly to appoint U Thant as Secretary-General of the United Nations for a term expiring on 3 November 1966.”  Later that same day, the Assembly adopted its resolution 1771 (XVII) authorizing the new term.  This meant that from his appointment for an interim term until the expiry of his new term, Thant would serve a full five years in office.


However, there is a mystery to this story.  The actual resolution adopted by the Security Council on 30 November 1962 “disappeared”.  Its text exists in its draft form as Security Council document S/5212 of 29 November 1962.  The full text of the resolution is also set out in a letter dated 30 November 1962 from the Security Council President (United Arab Republic) to the General Assembly President (A/5322).  In this letter, the Council President states, “I have the honour to inform you that the Security Council, at its 1026th meeting held in private on 30 November 1962, unanimously adopted the following resolution” (our emphasis). 


But the resolution itself is not on record.  Resolution 177 (1962) was adopted on 4 October 1962 under the agenda item, “Admission of new Members to the United Nations”.  Chronologically, the resolution recommending U Thant for a new term should have followed as resolution 178.  However, that resolution number was given to a decision adopted on 24 April 1963 under the agenda item, “Complaint by Senegal”.[3] 


How can this be explained? 


The “disappearance” of the 30 November 1962 Security Council resolution was a consequence of a decision taken in 1964 to implement a new numbering system for Council resolutions.  As noted in the book (page 374),


“during its early years, the Council adopted a number of substantive decisions in the course of its meetings without denominating them as ‘resolutions’ or numbering them as such.  It was only later that those decisions were retroactively numbered . . .”


What today are considered to be the first 14 resolutions of the Security Council, adopted between 25 January and 16 December 1946, even were not given, at the time of their approval, a document symbol of any sort.  Thereafter, until the end of 1964, most – but not all – Council resolutions were issued under a regular Security Council  “S/ – ”  document symbol, without any characteristic to distinguish those resolutions from other official Council documents such as letters or reports.


Given the difficulties that this lack of transparency created, in 1964 it was decided to adopt a specific numbering system for Council resolutions.  In 1965, after a comprehensive review of all Council decisions, a “Consolidated Check List of Resolutions of the Security Council, 1946-1964” was published.  It listed all documents from that time period which, as an outcome of the review process, had been designated resolutions and were now so numbered.  In addition, all of the earlier annual volumes of Resolutions and Decisions of the Security Council were reissued to indicate the new resolution numbers.


It was during this renumbering exercise that somehow the 30 November 1962 resolution was overlooked.  Possibly this was because it was adopted at a private meeting, although Security Council resolution 168 (1961), recommending U Thant as acting Secretary-General, was also adopted at a private meeting but was not missed during the review process.


Much of the Security Council’s “shorthand” for its work revolves around resolution numbers.  For example, eight of the Council’s subsidiary bodies, owing to political sensitivities, do not include in their official names any words indicating their subject matter.  Rather, they are referred to only by the number of the resolution by which they were established.  These are the Committees established pursuant to resolutions 1518 (2003), 1540 (2004), 1636 (2005), 1718 (2006), 1988 (2011), and 2140 (2014), as well as the Working Group established pursuant to resolution 1566 (2004) and the Facilitator appointed in connection with “Implementation of Security Council resolution 2231 (2015)” (for the subject matter of these subsidiary bodies, see the related table on this website). 


Resolution numbers also are used on the Council’s monthly work programme, on the agenda for informal consultations, and even in some cases as formal agenda items when it would be politically difficult to formulate a more transparent description.  For example, “1701 report” on the calendar or consultations agenda refers to the Secretary-General’s periodic reports on relations between Lebanon and Israel.  In another case, the name “Kosovo” does not appear in the Council’s formal agenda item.  Rather, the item is worded:  “Security Council resolutions 1160 (1998), 1199 (1998), 1203 (1998), 1239 (1999) and 1244 (1999)1160 (1998), 1199 (1998), 1203 (1998), 1239 (1999) and 1244 (1999)”.


These resolution references are so well known to Security Council members, and those following the Council, that it is odd to consider that in actuality, the resolutions should be higher by one number.  That is, the various subsidiary bodies should be referred to as having been established pursuant to resolutions 1519 (2003), 1541 (2004), 1637 (2005), 1719 (2006), 1989 (2011), and 2141 (2014), 1567 (2004), and 2232 (2015).  The Lebanon-Israel report should actually be pursuant to resolution 1702 (2006), and the shorthand for Kosovo should be resolution 1245 (1999).  Probably most unsettling is the thought that the groundbreaking resolution on women and peace and security should really be resolution 1326 (2000).


In any event, in order to give it its due, for the record, here follows the full text of resolution 177½ (1962):


            “The Security Council,


Having considered the question of the appointment of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, in accordance with Article 97 of the Charter,


Recommends to the General Assembly to appoint U Thant as Secretary-General of the United Nations for a term expiring on 3 November 1966.”


(This update supplements pages 374, 408 and 410 of the book.)


Appreciation is expressed to the Client Services team of the Dag Hammarskjöld Library for contributing to the research for this article.


[1] U Thant’s statement in the Assembly after taking the oath of office reflected this compromise.  He stated that he intended to invite “a limited number” of undersecretaries, presently in office or to be appointed, “to act as my principal advisers on important questions”.  He pledged to respect the qualifications for UN personnel set out in Article 101(3) of the Charter, and added that he would include among his advisers Ralph J. Bunche (United States) and Georgy Petrovich Arkadev (Soviet Union).

[2] The second sentence of Rule 48 reads, “Any recommendation to the General Assembly regarding the appointment of the Secretary-General shall be discussed and decided at a private meeting.”

[3] For those following the Security Council in modern times, it is striking that in the Council’s early decades, the intervals between the adoption of resolutions were so lengthy.



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