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Updated on 24 December 2015


Section 5:   Decisions to recommend appointments of Secretaries-General


Joint Assembly-Council letter on appointing the Secretary-General


On 15 December 2015, three months after the General Assembly adopted its resolution 69/321, the Assembly President and the President of the Security Council, as requested by the resolution, sent to all UN Member States a joint letter (S/2015/988) on the process for selecting the next Secretary-General.  Although not so requested by the resolution, the letter was also addressed to all Permanent Observers to the UN, which would encompass not only the Observer State of Palestine, but also the Holy See and a number of regional and subregional organizations.  The joint letter was signed by Mogens Lykketoft as Assembly President, and by Samantha Power, the representative of the United States, which held the Council Presidency in December.  (A separate article on the adoption of resolution 69/321 is posted on this website.)


Although the Assembly resolution had been adopted by consensus, drafting the joint letter requested by the resolution proved to be problematic in several respects.  The first clause of the letter indicates one sensitive issue, which is the degree to which resolution 69/321 is binding on the Council.  Under Chapter IV of the UN Charter, and specifically Article 10, Assembly resolutions directed to the Security Council are in the nature of “recommendations”.  Reflecting the importance some Council members give to this point, the opening clause of the joint letter states that the letter is setting in motion the appointment process “in line” with resolution 69/321, which implies a more voluntary compliance by the Council than if the letter had used the formula “pursuant to”.


It is specified in resolution 69/321 that the Secretary-General should embody “the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity”, and also should demonstrate “a firm commitment to the purposes and principles of the United Nations”.  In addition, according to the resolution, nominated candidates should have “proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills”.  All of these qualifications were reproduced in the joint letter.


In contrast, the relative influence that gender and geographical considerations should have on the appointment of the next Secretary-General is expressed in the joint letter using a different formula than in the Assembly resolution.  The resolution addressed the two considerations together, and equally, when it stressed “the need to ensure equal and fair distribution based on gender and geographical balance”, whereas the letter addresses the two considerations separately and unequally.  The letter gives more emphasis to the gender issue, in that it speaks of the “need to guarantee equal opportunities for women and men”, and then encourages Member States “to consider presenting women, as well as men, candidates for the position of Secretary-General”.  The letter gives far less emphasis than the resolution to geographical balance, since in the letter, the two Presidents merely “note the regional diversity in the selection of previous Secretaries-General”. 


The joint letter echoes the provision in the Assembly resolution that names of candidates will be circulated to all Member States “on an ongoing basis”.  This point is further elaborated when the joint letter states that “Early presentation of candidate will help the deliberations of the Security Council; nonetheless, that should not preclude others making themselves known throughout the process, as appropriate.”  It is important to some Council members that the nomination process should not have a cut-off deadline, but rather that it will remain open as long as necessary until the Council reaches agreement on its recommendation of a candidate to the Assembly.  Several times in the UN’s past history, notably with respect to Dag Hammarskjöld, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, and Kofi Annan, the nominee who eventually won the Council’s backing was not among the initial group of candidates.


One evolution from resolution 69/321 to the joint letter relates to the holding of “informal dialogues or meetings” with the candidates.  Resolution 69/321 decided that such gatherings should be held.  But at the time the resolution was adopted, there was some disagreement as to whether the Assembly, or the Council, or both, would convene such gatherings, and so the resolution did not specify which organ(s) would do so.  In fact, at least one Council member opposed having either UN organ officially involved in such meetings, while many other UN Member States were in favour.  In this situation, at the Assembly meeting at which resolution 69/321 was adopted, a third option was put forward by the representative of the United Kingdom when he confirmed that his delegation intended to host an “Arria-formula” meeting with the candidates (A/69/PV.103).  “Arria-formula” meetings are not activities of the Security Council, but rather are hosted by individual Council members, and they require neither the consensus of all 15 Council members, nor full Council attendance.  Nonetheless, by the time the joint letter was sent out three months after the adoption of resolution 69/321, agreement had been reached that both the Assembly President and the Council President “will offer candidates opportunities for informal dialogues or meetings with the members of their respective bodies”.  The letter adds that such informal dialogues or meetings “may continue throughout the process of selection”. 


Resolution 69/321 did not establish a timeline for the appointment process, other than to state that it “is expected to take place in 2016”.  Moreover, the resolution did not decide that the joint letter should fill this gap, but only that the letter should contain “a description of the entire process”, together with an invitation for “candidates to be presented in a timely manner”.  Ultimately, the joint letter also failed to set out a timeline as such.  Rather, the letter refers specifically only to a start time, when it states that the informal dialogues or meetings with candidates “can be held before the Council begins its selection by the end of July 2016”.  (For reference, Japan will hold the Council Presidency in July 2016, followed by Malaysia in August, New Zealand in September, the Russian Federation in October, Senegal in November, and Spain in December.)


While a number of UN Member States have expressed the hope that the new Secretary-General can be appointed at least three months before he/she will take office on 1 January 2017, neither the Assembly resolution nor the joint letter specify a date for the completion of the appointment process.  The letter merely states that the Security Council “plans to make its recommendation to the General Assembly in a timely manner so that the appointment by the Assembly allows the newly appointed Secretary-General sufficient time to prepare for the job.”





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