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Secretary-General of the United Nations

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Secretary-General of the United Nations
Other official names
  • أمين عام الأمم المتحدة (Arabic)
    联合国秘书长 (Chinese)
    Secrétaire Général des Nations Unies (French)
    Secretario General de las Naciones Unidas (Spanish)
    Генеральный секретарь ООН (Russian)
António Guterres
since 1 January 2017 (2017-01-01)
United Nations Secretariat
StyleHis Excellency
TypeChief administrative officer
Member ofSecretariat
General Assembly
ResidenceSutton Place, New York City
SeatUnited Nations Headquarters, New York City (international territory)
NominatorSecurity Council
AppointerGeneral Assembly
Term lengthFive years, renewable
(traditionally limited to two terms)
Constituting instrumentUnited Nations Charter
PrecursorSecretary-General of the League of Nations
Formation24 October 1945
First holderGladwyn Jebb
as acting Secretary-General
Trygve Lie
as first Secretary-General
DeputyDeputy Secretary-General

The secretary-general of the United Nations (UNSG or UNSECGEN) is the chief administrative officer of the United Nations and head of the United Nations Secretariat, one of the six principal organs of the United Nations.

The role of the secretary-general and of the secretariat is laid out by Chapter XV (Articles 97 to 101) of the United Nations Charter. However, the office's qualifications, selection process and tenure are open to interpretation; they have been established by custom.[1]

Selection and term of office[edit]

The Secretariat Building is a 154-metre-tall (505 ft) skyscraper and the centerpiece of the Headquarters of the United Nations.

The secretary-general is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. As the recommendation must come from the Security Council, any of the five permanent members of the council can veto a nomination. Most secretaries-general are compromise candidates from middle powers and have little prior fame.

Unofficial qualifications for the job have been set by precedent in previous selections. The appointee may not be a citizen of any of the Security Council's five permanent members.[2] The General Assembly resolution 51/241 in 1997 stated that, in the appointment of "the best candidate", due regard should be given to regional (continental) rotation of the appointee's national origin and to gender equality,[3]: 5  although no woman has yet served as secretary-general. All appointees to date have been career diplomats.[4]

The length of the term is discretionary, but all secretaries-general since 1971 have been appointed to five-year terms. Every secretary-general since 1961 has been re-selected for a second term, with the exception of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was vetoed by the United States in the 1996 selection. There is a customary but unofficial[5] term limit of two full terms, established when China, in the 1981 selection, cast a record 16 vetoes against a third term for Kurt Waldheim. No secretary-general since 1981 has attempted to secure a third term.

The selection process is opaque and is often compared to a papal conclave.[6][7] Since 1981, the Security Council has voted in secret in a series of straw polls; it then submits the winning candidate to the General Assembly for ratification. No candidate has ever been rejected by the General Assembly, and only once, in 1950, has a candidate been voted upon despite a UNSC veto.[8]

In 2016, the General Assembly and the Security Council sought nominations and conducted public debates for the first time. However, the Security Council voted in private and followed the same process as previous selections, leading the president of the General Assembly to complain that it "does not live up to the expectations of the membership and the new standard of openness and transparency".[9]

Powers and duties[edit]

The role of the secretary-general is described as combining the functions and responsibilities of an advocate, diplomat, civil servant, and chief executive officer.[10] The UN Charter designates the secretary-general as the "chief administrative officer" of the UN and allows them to perform "such other functions as are entrusted" by other United Nations organs. The Charter also empowers the secretary-general to inform the Security Council of "any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security". These provisions have been interpreted as providing broad leeway for officeholders to serve a variety of roles as suited to their preferences, skill set, or circumstances.[4]

The secretary-general's routine duties include overseeing the activities and duties of the secretariat; attending sessions with United Nations bodies; consulting with world leaders, government officials, and other stakeholders; and travelling the world to engage with global constituents and bring attention to certain international issues.[10] The secretary-general publishes an annual report on the work of the UN, which includes an assessment of its activities and an outline future priorities. The secretary-general is also the chairman of the United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (CEB), a body composed of the heads of all UN funds, programmes, and specialised agencies, which meets twice a year to discuss substantive and management issues facing the United Nations System.[10]

Many of the secretary-general's powers are informal and left open to individual interpretation; some appointees have opted for more activist roles, while others have been more technocratic or administrative.[4] The secretary-general is often reliant upon the use of their "good offices", described as "steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading".[10] Consequently, observers have variably described the office as the "world's most visible bully pulpit" or as the "world's moderator".[11][4] Examples include Dag Hammarskjöld's promotion of an armistice between the warring parties of Arab-Israel conflict, Javier Perez de Cuellar's negotiation of a ceasefire in the Iran-Iraq War, and U Thant's role in deescalating the Cuban Missile Crisis.[4]


The official residence of the secretary-general is a townhouse at 3 Sutton Place, Manhattan, in New York City, United States. The townhouse was built for Anne Morgan in 1921 and donated to the United Nations in 1972.[12]

List of secretaries-general[edit]

No. Portrait Secretary-general
Assumed office Left office Country of origin UN Regional Group Political party Notes
Acting Gladwyn Jebb
24 October 1945 2 February 1946 United Kingdom Western European and Others Liberal After World War II, he served as executive secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations in August 1945, being appointed Acting United Nations secretary-general from October 1945 to February 1946 until the appointment of the first secretary-general, Trygve Lie.[14]
1 Trygve Lie
2 February 1946 10 November 1952 Norway Western European and Others Labour Lie, a foreign minister and former labour leader, was recommended by the Soviet Union to fill the post. After the UN involvement in the Korean War, the Soviet Union vetoed Lie's reappointment in 1951. The United States circumvented the Soviet Union's veto and recommended reappointment directly to the General Assembly. Lie was reappointed by a vote of 46 to 5, with eight abstentions. The Soviet Union remained hostile to Lie, and he resigned in 1952.[16]
2 Dag Hammarskjöld
10 April 1953 18 September 1961 Sweden Western European and Others Independent After a series of candidates were vetoed, Hammarskjöld emerged as an option that was acceptable to the Security Council. He was re-elected unanimously to a second term in 1957. The Soviet Union was angered by Hammarskjöld's leadership of the UN during the Congo Crisis, and suggested that the position of secretary-general be replaced by a troika, or three-man executive. Facing great opposition from the Western nations, the Soviet Union gave up on its suggestion. Hammarskjöld died in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in 1961.[16] U.S. president John F. Kennedy called him "the greatest statesman of our century".[18] Hammarskjöld was posthumously awarded the 1961 Nobel Peace Prize.
Acting U Thant
3 November 1961 30 November 1962 Burma Asia-Pacific Independent

Formerly a member of the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League until 1958

In the process of replacing Hammarskjöld, the developing world insisted on a non-European and non-American secretary-general. U Thant was nominated. However, due to opposition from the French (Thant had chaired a committee on Algerian independence) and the Arabs (Burma supported Israel), Thant was only appointed for the remainder of Hammarskjöld's term. He was the first Asian secretary-general. The following year, on 30 November, Thant was unanimously re-elected to a full term ending on 3 November 1966. At the General Assembly session on 2 December 1966, Thant was reappointed as secretary-general by a unanimous vote of the Security Council. His five-year term ended on 31 December 1971. Thant did not seek a third election.[16] Thant is the only former secretary-general whose home country had not been in the Security Council in his term.
3 30 November 1962 31 December 1971
4 Kurt Waldheim
1 January 1972 31 December 1981 Austria Western European and Others People's Waldheim launched a discreet but effective campaign to become the secretary-general. Despite initial vetoes from China and the United Kingdom, in the third round, Waldheim was selected to become the new secretary-general. In 1976, China initially blocked Waldheim's re-election, but it relented on the second ballot. In 1981, Waldheim's re-election for a third term was blocked by China, which vetoed his selection through 15 rounds; although the official reasons by the Chinese government for the veto of Waldheim remain unclear, some estimates from the time believe it to be in part due to China's belief that a Third World country should give a nomination, particularly from the Americas;[21] however, there also remained the question of his possible involvement in Nazi war crimes.[22] From 1986 to 1992, Waldheim served as president of Austria, making him the first former secretary-general to rise to the position of head of state. In 1985, it was revealed that a post-World War II UN War Crimes Commission had labeled Waldheim as a suspected war criminal based on his involvement with the Wehrmacht. The files had been stored in the UN archive.[16]
5 Javier Pérez de Cuéllar
1 January 1982 31 December 1991 Peru Latin American and Caribbean Independent
Later became a member of the Union for Peru in 1994
Pérez de Cuéllar was selected after a five-week deadlock between the re-election of Waldheim and China's candidate, Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania. Pérez de Cuéllar, a Peruvian diplomat who a decade earlier had served as President of the UN Security Council during his time as Peruvian ambassador to the UN, was a compromise candidate. He became the first and thus far only secretary-general from the Americas. He was re-elected unanimously in 1986.[16]
6 Boutros Boutros-Ghali
1 January 1992 31 December 1996 Egypt African National Democratic The 102-member Non-Aligned Movement insisted that the next secretary-general come from Africa. With a majority in the General Assembly and the support of China, the "Non-Aligned Movement had the votes necessary to block any unfavorable candidate". The Security Council conducted five anonymous straw polls—a first for the council—and Boutros-Ghali emerged with 11 votes on the fifth round. In 1996, the United States vetoed the re-appointment of Boutros-Ghali, claiming he had failed in implementing necessary reforms to the UN.[16]
7 Kofi Annan
1 January 1997 31 December 2006 Ghana African Independent On 13 December 1996, the Security Council recommended Annan.[26][27] He was confirmed four days later by the vote of the General Assembly.[28] He started his second term as secretary-general on 1 January 2002. Kofi Annan and the United Nations were the recipients of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.
8 Ban Ki-moon
(b. 1944)[29]
1 January 2007 31 December 2016 South Korea Asia-Pacific Independent Ban became the first East Asian to be selected as the secretary-general and the second Asian overall after U Thant.[30] He was unanimously elected to a second term by the General Assembly on 21 June 2011. His second term began on 1 January 2012.[31] Prior to his selection, he was the Foreign Minister of South Korea from January 2004 to November 2006.[32]
9 António Guterres
(b. 1949)[33]
1 January 2017 Incumbent Portugal Western European and Others Socialist Guterres is the first former head of government to become secretary-general, and the first secretary-general born after the establishment of the United Nations. He was the prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002. He has also been president of the Socialist International (1999–2005) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2005–2015). His second term began on 1 January 2022.
Map showing which nations have had a national serving as secretary-general of the United Nations


# Secretary-General Born Age at ascension
(first term)
Time in office
Age at retirement
(last term)
Died Age
Jebb, Gladwyn Gladwyn Jebb 25 April 1900 45 years, 182 days
24 October 1945
102 days 45 years, 283 days
2 February 1946
24 October 1996 96 years, 182 days
1 Lie, Trygve Trygve Lie 16 July 1896 49 years, 201 days
2 February 1946
6 years, 283 days 56 years, 117 days
10 November 1952
30 December 1968 72 years, 167 days
2 Hammarskjöld, Dag Dag Hammarskjöld 29 July 1905 47 years, 255 days
10 April 1953
8 years, 162 days 56 years, 51 days
18 September 1961
18 September 1961 56 years, 51 days
3 Thant, U U Thant 22 January 1909 52 years, 285 days
3 November 1961
10 years, 59 days 62 years, 343 days
31 December 1971
25 November 1974 65 years, 307 days
4 Waldheim, Kurt Kurt Waldheim 21 December 1918 53 years, 11 days
1 January 1972
10 years, 0 days 63 years, 10 days
31 December 1981
14 June 2007 88 years, 175 days
5 Pérez de Cuéllar, Javier Javier Pérez de Cuéllar 19 January 1920 61 years, 347 days
1 January 1982
10 years, 0 days 71 years, 346 days
31 December 1991
4 March 2020 100 years, 45 days
6 Boutros-Ghali, Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali 14 November 1922 69 years, 48 days
1 January 1992
5 years, 0 days 74 years, 47 days
31 December 1996
16 February 2016 93 years, 94 days
7 Annan, Kofi Kofi Annan 8 April 1938 58 years, 268 days
1 January 1997
10 years, 0 days 68 years, 267 days
31 December 2006
18 August 2018 80 years, 132 days
8 Ban, Ki-moon Ban Ki-moon 13 June 1944 62 years, 202 days
1 January 2007
10 years, 0 days 72 years, 201 days
31 December 2016
2024-07-13(living) 80 years, 30 days
9 Guterres, António António Guterres 30 April 1949 67 years, 246 days
1 January 2017
7 years, 194 days (incumbent) 2024-07-13(living) 75 years, 74 days

By regional group[edit]

UN Regional Group Secretaries-General Terms
WEOG 4 7
Eastern European Group 0 0
Asia-Pacific Group 2 4
African Group 2 3

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Urquhart, Brian (28 January 2009). "The Next Secretary-General: How to Fill a Job With No Description". Foreign Affairs: America and the World. ISSN 0015-7120. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  2. ^ "Kofi Annan: Job at a Glance". PBS. Educational Broadcasting Corporation. 2002. Archived from the original on 20 April 2016.
  3. ^ Appointing the UN Secretary-General (PDF). Research Report. Vol. 2015. New York: Security Council Report, Inc. 16 October 2015. pp. 4–5.
  4. ^ a b c d e "The Role of the UN Secretary-General". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved 3 September 2020.
  5. ^ "Appointment Process: United Nations Secretary-General". United Nations. Retrieved 19 August 2023.
  6. ^ Sengupta, Somini (21 July 2016). "Secrecy Reigns as U.N. Seeks a New Secretary General". The New York Times.
  7. ^ "A Well-Read Secretary General". The New York Times. 13 December 1981. With a figurative puff of white smoke, the United Nations Security Council finally selected a new Secretary-General – a seasoned and soft-spoken diplomat from Peru, Javier Perez de Cuellar.
  8. ^ Barrett, George (13 October 1950). "Position of U.N. Chief Aide is Thrust Into Uncertainty". The New York Times. p. 1.
  9. ^ "Letter from Mogens Lykketoft to All Permanent Representatives and Permanent Observers to the United Nations, 21 July 2016" (PDF). 21 July 2016. Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 August 2016.
  10. ^ a b c d "The role of the Secretary-General". United Nations Secretary-General. 22 April 2015. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  11. ^ "The Secretary-General Is Dead; Long Live the Secretary-General". Observer. 10 October 2016. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  12. ^ Teltsch, Kathleen. "Town House Offered to UN", The New York Times, 15 July 1972. Retrieved 27 December 2007.
  13. ^ Campbell, Alan (23 September 2004). "Jebb, (Hubert Miles) Gladwyn, first Baron Gladwyn (1900–1996), diplomatist". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 1 (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/63251. Retrieved 2 December 2023. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  14. ^ Stout, David (26 October 1996). "Lord Gladwyn Is Dead at 96; Briton Helped Found the UN". The New York Times. Retrieved 31 October 2008.
  15. ^ "Trygve Halvdan Lie". United Nations Secretary General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  16. ^ a b c d e f "An Historical Overview on the Selection of United Nations Secretaries-General" (PDF). UNA-USA. Archived from the original (PDF) on 25 October 2007. Retrieved 30 September 2007.
  17. ^ "Dag Hjalmar Agne Carl Hammarskjöld". United Nations Secretary General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  18. ^ Linnér, S. (2007). Dag Hammarskjöld and the Congo crisis, 1960–61. Archived 5 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Page 28. Uppsala University. (22 July 2008).
  19. ^ "U Thant". United Nations Secretary General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  20. ^ "Kurt Waldheim". United Nations Secretary General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  21. ^ Nossiter, Bernard D. (29 October 1981). "China Continues to Bar Waldheim Renomination". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  22. ^ s. "Waldheim elected U.N. secretary-general". HISTORY. Retrieved 14 February 2019.
  23. ^ "Javier Perez de Cuellar". United Nations Secretary-General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  24. ^ "Boutros Boutros-Ghali". United Nations Secretary-General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  25. ^ "Kofi Annan". United Nations Secretary-General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  26. ^ "Kofi Annan of Ghana recommended by Security Council for appointment as Secretary-General of United Nations" (Press release). United Nations. 13 December 1996. Retrieved 12 December 2006.
  27. ^ Traub, James (2006). The Best Intentions. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 66–67. ISBN 978-0-374-18220-5.
  28. ^ "General Assembly appoints Kofi Annan of Ghana as seventh Secretary-General" (Press release). United Nations. 17 December 1996. Retrieved 12 December 2006.
  29. ^ "Ban Ki-moon". United Nations Secretary-General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.
  30. ^ "Ban Ki-moon is sworn in as next Secretary-General of the United Nations". United Nations.
  31. ^ "Ban Ki-moon gets second term as UN chief". The Globe and Mail. 22 June 2011. Archived from the original on 24 June 2011.
  32. ^ "Ban Ki-moon is sworn in as next Secretary-General of the United Nations". United Nations.
  33. ^ "António Guterres". United Nations Secretary-General. Retrieved 2 December 2023.

External links[edit]