Coming autumn the United Nations will choose a successor of mr. Ban Ki-Moon, who served the organization as Secretary-General since January 1st, 2007. In the past few months no less than twelve people (six women and six men) applied for the job, including former Prime Ministers, Secretary of States and executives of several international organizations. At this moment (Sept 8th  2016) already two candidates withdrew from the procedure. This blog analyzes this particular election procedure and its legal basis. It is not meant as an endorsement for any of the candidates.

United Nations Charter

In Chapter XV (articles 97 – 101) of the United Nations Charter (hereafter: Charter) it is codified that the Secretariat shall comprise a Secretary-General and such staff as the Organization may require. The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon recommendation of the Security Council via a resolution setting out its recommendation. This resolution has consistently been adopted at a private meeting of the Council, since rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council states; ‘any recommendation to the General Assembly regarding the appointment of the Secretary-General shall be discussed and decided at a private meeting’. In years when a number of candidates are being considered, the Council will conduct balloting before adopting its resolution. In years when only one candidate is being considered, the Council’s normal practice is to proceed directly, without prior balloting, to adopting a resolution, usually by acclamation.[1]

The Secretary-General shall act as the chief administrative officer of the Organization. (Art. 97 Charter). His or hers duty is to act in the capacity of chief administrative officer of the Organization in all meetings of the General Assembly, of the Security Council, of the Economic and Social Council, and of the Trusteeship Council, and shall perform such other functions as are entrusted to him by these organs. The Secretary-General shall make an annual report to the General Assembly on the work of the Organization. (Art. 98 Charter). Furthermore, the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security (Art. 99 Charter). He or she also needs to be independent in relation to any government and from any other authority external of the United Nations (Art. 100 Charter).

Soft law

Historically, the Secretary-General has been selected based on an informal system of regional rotation. This informal practice was ‘codified’ in resolution 51/241 by the General Assembly on August 22, 1997 wherein it was stated in the annex, under XIX that:

‘56.   The process of selection of the Secretary-General shall be made more transparent.


59. In the course of the identification and appointment of the best candidate for the post of Secretary-General, due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality.’[2]

With this in mind one can look at the historical regional distribution of the position of Secretary General of the United Nations:

  • Africa (Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Kofi Annan)
  • Asia (U Thant, Ban Ki-moon).
  • Central & Latin America (Javier Perez de Cuellar)
  • Western Europe (Gladwyn Jebb; Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission of the United Nations, Trygvie Lie, Dag Hammarskjold, Kurt Waldheim)

Therefore, one could infer that other regions (Eastern Europe, North America or Oceania) are now lined up to provide a candidate for the position. However, this practice is not hard law. The same goes for the fact of gender equality as in the past there hasn’t been a women Secretary General. Furthermore, there is technically no limit to the number of five-year terms a Secretary-General may serve. Nevertheless, none so far has held office for more than two terms. As already mentioned twelve people (six women and six men) applied for the job. In the picture below one can see the regional diversity among the candidates.


Election 9th Secretary-General

December 15th, 2015 the then Security Council President, H.E. Ms. Samantha Power, and the President of the General Assembly H.E. Mr. Mogens Lykketoft, opened up the formal procedure of the appointment of the new Secretary-General. The President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council offered candidates in their formal letter opportunities for informal dialogues or meetings with the members of their respective bodies, while noting that any such interaction will be without prejudice to those who do not participate. These can take place before the Council begins its selection by the end of July 2016 and may continue throughout the process of selection.[3] Different elements in the election of the ninth Secretary-General (and in contradiction with rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council) are the informal dialogues and meetings with the candidates, which are broadcasted live on the UN-website. One can find those video’s here. Especially the so-called ‘global townhall meetings’ are interesting to watch as it gives a little insight in the focal points of the candidates.


In September 2016, the Security Council will continue with private meetings and straw polls. Moreover, a lot of lobbying by governments, non-governmental organizations, international organizations, UN Agencies, and many more stakeholders will take place. The expectation is that the successor of mr. Ban Ki-Moon will be chosen by the end of October. The Peace Palace Library staff will monitor the election process closely in our research guide United Nations.


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[1] (Last accessed September 8th, 2016).

[2] (Last accessed September 8th, 2016).

[3] (Last accessed September 8th, 2016).

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