What Does it Take To Become UN Secretary-General?

Former UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon.

I once heard that if your dreams don’t make others lift their eyebrows or laugh, they are not big enough.

I remember a friend of mine and myself where playing a game to see whose dreams are the biggest or craziest. Whoever gave off the biggest reaction (out of shock or laughter) would lose the game, because it would mean that the other person’s dream is a lot grander in scale and imagination. We bet on it and said our aspirations to each other. It was like a boxing bout – punching each other with hard-to-achieve dreams. He thought he had me and would have a knockout win over me when he stated he wants to be the richest man in the world. I acted like it was nothing and rebutted by saying I want to be Secretary-General of the United Nations by age 50. The look he gave me was enough to lose him the game. He said to me, “Papama, you have a better chance of being the richest man in the world by age 50 than be Secretary-General of the UN.” So it would appear that my aspirations of attaining the highest post in world politics is big as a dream can be as the likelihood is not very favourable. Why is that?

As a student of international relations I am inherently interested in international organisations such as the UN – their functionality, impact, leadership, and historical significance. As someone who inquires on successful individuals I am interested in learning more about the person at the top of the “world’s watchdog”. Of all the high positions in the world: a state monarch, the US President, the Pope, the IMF Managing Director, or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, there is one position that I have found most intriguing: Secretary-General (SG) of the United Nations (UN).

My friend has a point, the odds of becoming SG of the UN in one’s lifetime are very, very, very slim. The numbers speak for themselves: there have been 8 SGs in the entire 72 year existence of the UN. The ninth and current SG, Antonio Guterres, was appointed by the General Assembly on 13 October 2016 and began his term on 1 January 2017. The primary reason for so few SGs in such a stretch of time is because each SG serves a term of 5 years in length and can be renewed for another 5-year term (which is not guaranteed and every SG is limited to two terms). Of the 8 SGs prior to Guterres, 5 achieved two full terms; one, T. Lie (1946-1952), resigned in his second term due to Soviet Union hostility; another, D. Hammarskjöld (1953-1961) tragically died in his second term, lastly, Boutros-Ghali (1992-1996) had his re-appointment vetoed by the United States. The good news is that each SG comes from a different country, representing 4 continents, ensuring that different nationalities get represented at the highest post.

The United Nations was founded straight after the Second World War as a replacement intergovernmental organisation for the League of Nations. With a current membership of 193 states, the UN plays an essential role in coordinating international cooperation. It is an overarching institution mandated to maintain international peace and security, promote human rights, foster social and economic development, protect the environment, and provide humanitarian aid in cases of famine, natural disaster, and armed conflict.

The UN founding Charter lays the blueprint of its mission and principles. Upon its founding in 1945 six main organs were created to coordinate its work: the General Assembly (the main deliberative assembly); the Security Council (for deciding certain resolutions for peace and security); the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (for promoting international economic and social co-operation and development); the Secretariat (for providing studies, information, and facilities needed by the UN); the International Court of Justice (the primary judicial organ); and the United Nations Trusteeship Council (inactive since 1994).  Its leadership chart is traditionally systematic and structured as well. Its most prolific leader is the Secretary-General, who heads the UN Secretariat, the executive arm of the organisation that centralizes all the administration of its activities. The UN Charter (Article 97, Chapter XV) describes the SG as the “chief administrative officer” of the UN. Over the decades, the SG has become the symbol of the organisation’s ideals and subsequently a spokesperson for the interests of the world’s people, particularly the disenfranchised. Former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt envisioned the SG as a “world moderator”.

Being “equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO”[1], as the SG is described, what does it take to be at the helm of the world’s largest and most important organisation? Although the actual process itself is unclear, Article 97 of the UN Charter determines that 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. Although we have seen SGs coming from almost all continents, which country a potential candidate is from factors a lot. For one, a citizen of one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (being France, the United Kingdom, the U.S., China and Russia) will never be successful. Understandably, this is to avoid the appearance of bias and any further concentration of power. Outside those five countries, regional rivalries and geopolitical events can destroy one’s potential candidacy. If a candidate comes from a country that has tensions with one of the permanent members of the Security Council, that member country will wish to veto the candidacy. We saw this happen in 2006 with Shashi Tharoor who was reportedly vetoed by China because he was Indian. In the recent election, being a candidate of an Eastern European country would have been difficult given that the conflict in Ukraine would have unsettled Russia.

So the first step to becoming SG is being a candidate from a country that is not in conflict with any of the permanent members of the Security Council, as you would need ALL five of their votes to continue your campaign. So, luck may factor into this: i.e. being of the right nationality at the right time. The second step is the real challenge, being a highly accomplished individual.  The SG position is a political position. You need support from a large bloc of member states in order to even get nominated, as you have to demonstrate that you would be able to lead the organisation effectively[2]. Member States are invited to present candidates in a letter to the President of the General Assembly and the President of the Security Council; such candidates  must have “proven leadership and managerial abilities, extensive experience in international relations, and strong diplomatic, communication and multilingual skills.”[3]

What I found very interesting in looking at past SGs and even past candidates, their résumés are very impressive, and if you plan on running against them, you should be very intimidated. It makes perfect sense that the highest political position would need someone very familiar and experienced with international affairs as the job itself is very demanding. Some distinguished character traits are also as important: you have to be a person of immense integrity and humility, be able to deal with countless cross-cultural interactions around the world, and be well-versed in the social, economic, and political arenas on a global scale. That is a lot to ask for from a mere mortal, but it is a must in order to properly lead an organisation of this magnitude.

The 7th Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Anan.

Looking at just the 2016 candidates you will notice a trend. Every single one of them is mesmerizingly accomplished. In the list of 14 candidates I count nine former national leaders, as well as a number of foreign ministers and high-ranking UN officials. These are all candidates who have been in the international political arena for a substantial time operating at a top level. The man who took the job is the former Prime Minister of Portugal. For further proof: both Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali of Egypt and Ban Ki-Moon of South Korea served as Foreign Ministers in their respective countries, and Kofi Anan  worked for nearly a decade as an Assistant Secretary-General in the UN before his appointment in 1996. You will also notice that Foreign Ministers tend to be a popular choice as SGs. This makes sense as they have the experience and the necessary skills to be the world’s diplomat, working behind the scenes with leaders and people from all over the world on matters of global importance and impact.

I’m glad I played that game with my friend, it made me look into the far-fetched aspiration of mine (and many many others) of being Secretary-General of the UN. I’m sure there is more to it than what I have highlighted here, but what has been said is pretty much the gist of it if you want the gig of being SG. So there you have it, if you want to be UN Secretary-General, be sure to: (1) be born in the right country at the right time, and (2) do something incredibly well related to foreign affairs.

Papama Nyati.


[1] https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/role-secretary-general

[2] https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-become-the-Secretary-General-of-United-Nations

[3] http://www.un.org/pga/71/sg/


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