What Does The UN Secretary-General Actually Do?

In October 2016, the United Nations elected its 9th Secretary General - Antonio Guterres

of Portugal.

The position has been described as ‘the hardest in the world’, but what exactly

does the UN Secretary General do?

Well, the Secretary General is the leader and de facto spokesperson of the United Nations.

According to the UN Charter, this means leading most meetings, creating an annual report and

addressing the security council on matters that “threaten international peace and security."

Beyond this, the job actually has few official duties and as a result, every Secretary General

has interpreted it differently.

For instance some act as “world moderators”, which is to say, the diplomatic mediator in

international disputes.

In fact when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was creating the UN, this is how he envisioned

the Secretary General’s role.

One example of a “moderator”-type was Secretary General Kofi Annan, who prioritized

human rights and the spread of HIV while in office from 1997 to 2006.

By comparison, Annan’s successor, Ban Ki Moon, has been more of an administrator-type,

overseeing the UN but with little input about what its moral obligations should be.

Not only is the job of the Secretary General open to interpretation, but so is the appointment


The UN Charter’s only stipulation is that the five-member UN Security Council recommend

a candidate to the General Assembly, all 193 of which vote to approve.

Traditionally, the Security Council’s process of narrowing down officials has occurred behind

closed doors.

However amid calls for transparency in 2016, the General Assembly began holding open hearings

and Q&A’s.

And they can do this, because the UN Charter doesn’t actually specify how the body should

choose a candidate, nor does it say what type of person should be chosen or the length of

their tenure.

That said, there are a few unofficial norms.

Secretary Generals tend to be career diplomats from neutral, small to medium sized countries,

like Peru or Sweden.

Although there is no formal limit on how many times a person can be appointed to the position,

no Secretary General has exceeded two 5-year terms.

This is all somewhat straightforward, so why is the Secretary General’s job purportedly

so difficult?

Well, the Secretary General’s day-to-day is heavily shaped by caution and judgement,

as they must take into account the concerns of the UN’s member states while acting as

an impartial moral authority.

In fact, one of the most crucial aspects of the job is acting as an intermediary in high-stakes

international disputes.

Take Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, who was tasked with forging peace between

Israel and Arab States during the 1950’s Suez Crisis, or Javier Perez de Cuellar, who

brokered the ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Many in the UN are hoping that its new Secretary General, Antonio Guterres will use his experience

serving as the organization’s High Commissioner for Refugees to be a powerful leader in the

face of the migrant crisis.

This is why the Secretary General’s role is often described through juxtaposition:

they must be a diplomat and advocate, activist and bureaucrat, world moderator and chief

administrator, even Secretary and General.

Experts say Guterres will not only have to mediate world conflicts, but the UN itself,

as the organization becomes increasingly divided on issues such as the Syrian Civil War.

When Guterres assumes this powerful but ambiguous position in January, there’s no doubt he

will face some daunting global challenges.