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Updated on 13 September 2015


Section 5:   Decisions to recommend appointments of Secretaries-General


General Assembly adopts resolution on selection of next Secretary-General


On 11 September 2015, the General Assembly adopted by consensus its resolution 69/321 on the “Revitalization of the work of the General Assembly”.  The resolution includes 13 paragraphs on the “Selection and appointment of the Secretary-General and other executive heads” (A/69/1007, para. 68).  This section of the resolution, the outcome of months of discussion and negotiations, broke new ground by adopting the following new measures for “transparency and inclusiveness” in the selection process:


  • Requests the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council to start the process of soliciting candidates for the position of Secretary-General through a joint letter addressed to all Member States, containing a description of the entire process and inviting candidates to be presented in a timely manner (para. 35);


  • Requests the Assembly and Council Presidents to jointly circulate to all Member States on an ongoing basis the names of individuals that have been submitted for consideration as candidates, together with accompanying documents, including curricula vitae (para. 36);   


  • States that the Secretary-General should embody the “highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity”, demonstrate “a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the United Nations”, and possess “proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills” (para. 39);


  • Stresses “the need to ensure equal and fair distribution based on gender and geographical balance” and invites Member States to consider presenting women as candidates for the office (para. 38);


  • Decides, without prejudice to the role of the principal organs as enshrined in Article 97 of the Charter, to conduct informal dialogues or meetings with candidates, without any prejudice to any candidate who does not participate (para. 42).


The biggest breakthrough achieved through the adoption of resolution 69/321 is the methodology set out in paragraph 36 for transparency with respect to the names of candidates.  In all previous selection processes, candidates were proposed to the Council by Member States privately.  And after the Security Council began using “straw polls” in 1981, the Council issued no public documentation indicating those candidates which were under consideration and the status reached at each stage of the process.  Summarizing the import of paragraph 36, the representative of the United Kingdom affirmed that, “The days of smoke-filled rooms, of rumours and speculation . . . are over.  Through consensus today, we have brought overdue transparency to an archaic and opaque process.”


It is noteworthy that whereas previous Assembly resolutions adopted on the selection of the Secretary-General emphasized that “due regard should be given to regional rotation and gender equality” (see, for example, A/RES/60/286), the new resolution reverses the order of those qualifications when it stresses “equal and fair distribution based on gender and geographical balance”.   The position of some States that under the system of regional rotation the next Secretary-General should come from Eastern Europe was alluded to only obliquely in remarks made after the adoption of resolution 69/321 by the representative of Belarus.  After noting the resolution’s emphasis on the need to ensure “gender and geographical balance”, he added that “we assume that this balance can be established not in one moment, but has to be done step by step”.


Interestingly, paragraph 32 of resolution 69/321 reaffirms “the applicable procedures set out in the rules of procedure of the General Assembly, in particular rule 141”, while at the same time “acknowledging relevant existing Assembly practices”.  Rule 141 provides that, “When the Security Council has submitted its recommendation on the appointment of the Secretary-General, the General Assembly shall consider the recommendation and vote upon it by secret ballot in private meeting.”  However, as described in the book (page 404), despite this rule, for the appointment of the first Secretary-General, the Assembly accepted a suggestion from its President that the balloting be carried out in a public meeting rather than in private.  All subsequent appointments by the Assembly have similarly been decided in public meetings.  The book also notes that only in 1950 did the Assembly conduct an actual vote on the Council’s recommendation. On all other occasions, the Assembly pronounced itself on the Council’s recommendation by acclamation.


By citing both Rule 141 and “relevant existing Assembly practices”, paragraph 32 thus leaves open whether or not, for the 2016 selection process, the Assembly should follow the letter of its Rule 141 and consider the Council’s recommendation in a private meeting.  Because in 2016 the Council is expected to forward to the Assembly the name of only one candidate, whether or not the Assembly meets in private in such case will not be of much consequence.  However, if the Assembly should decide in 2016 to meet in private, it will have created a new practice that would be more meaningful if the Council eventually decides, in a subsequent appointment process, to forward the names of two or more candidates to the Assembly.


The representative of France, in a statement made after the adoption, observed that consensus on resolution 69/321 had been made possible owing to the resolution’s respect for the broad institutional balance between the General Assembly and the Security Council established by the UN Charter.  He stressed the importance of this consensus, noting that had it been necessary to vote on these sensitive issues, that “could have put the UN in an institutional crisis” (A/69/PV.103). 


Speaking after the adoption, some States suggested that consensus on resolution 69/321 had been achieved in part because more contentious matters had been left to future consideration.  In this connection, several speakers pointed to paragraph 44 of the resolution, whereby the Assembly affirmed


“its readiness to continue discussing all the issues relating to the selection and

appointment of the Secretary-General in all their aspects within the Ad Hoc Working

Group during its seventieth session, including those contained in the report of the

Ad Hoc Working Group as contained in document A/69/1007”. 


Those issues over which Member States remained divided included, according to statements made in the Assembly, whether the Council should forward the names of more than one candidate to the Assembly, and whether instead of a renewable five-year term, the Secretary-General should serve a single non-renewable seven-year term.  Moreover, the representative of the United Kingdom stated his disappointment that there had been strong resistance to the participation of civil society in the meetings with the candidates provided for in paragraph 42 of the resolution.  In this context, he noted that the “Arria-formula” meeting which his delegation intended to convene with the candidates would be “open to all”, including civil society.


One criterion for the office of Secretary-General which was mentioned officially for the first time in resolution 69/321 is “multilingual skills”.  This is thought to refer in particular to a working knowledge of both “working languages” of the UN Secretariat which, as decided by Assembly resolution 2 (I) of 1946, are English and French.  


Among previous Secretaries-General, Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), Kurt Waldheim (Austria), Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru) and Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt) knew French.  Hammarskjöld, whose French was excellent, was in fact nominated for Secretary-General by France.  Pérez de Cuéllar, while Secretary-General, circulated two Secretary-General’s Bulletins (ST/SGB/201 and ST/SGB/212) in order to emphasize “the importance I attach to ensuring a linguistic balance among staff members of the Secretariat and to reiterate the policy of the Secretariat regarding the use of its working languages.”  The Bulletins accordingly encouraged “staff members throughout the Secretariat whose principal language is French, or who prefer to work in that language, to use French in all official communications.”  Boutros-Ghali, after the end of his term as UN Secretary-General, served as Secretary General of the Organization of la Francophonie from 1997 to 2002.  In contrast, Trygve Lie (Norway), U Thant (Burma) and Ban Ki-moon (Republic of Korea) were not able to work in French.  Kofi Annan received a degree from the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, but he was not fully comfortable in French.


These other articles related to the appointment of the Secretary-General are posted on this website:


ACT proposes a more transparent, inclusive process for appointing the Secretary-General


Support by the Russian Federation for an Eastern European Secretary-General


Proposals by The Elders for “a more independent Secretary-General”


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