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  • Ikechukwu Okereke

The UN-significant Election: The Continuing Reforms of the United Secretary-General Selection

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

Courtesy of the UN Audiovisual Library

On June 8th 2021, Portuguese statesman Antonio Guterres was renominated by the United Nations Security Council (SC) for the position of Secretary-General (SG), and was quickly appointed on the 18th to a second term by the General Assembly (GA), following a seemingly uncontested campaign. Although receiving criticism for failing to combat abuses within and outside the intergovernmental organization, early support from major member states assured his selection over greater discussion. However, this decision holds important insight into the evolving practices and norms of this unknown process.

Enacted in 1945, the UN Charter only included one line governing the procedure for the SG selection: “the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” A year later, the GA adopted resolution A/RES/11/1, establishing further guidelines, which stated: “it would be desirable for the Security Council to proffer one candidate only for the consideration of the General Assembly, and for debate on the nomination in the General Assembly to be avoided,” and “both nomination and appointment should be discussed at private meetings, and a vote in either [chamber], if taken, should be by secret ballot.”

This early confidentiality would obscure the proceedings into the future. After 1950, when first Secretary-General Trygve Lie was reappointed by the GA due to a gridlocked Council, the former has accepted all of the latter’s recommendations, limiting the ultimate input to the five Permanent Members of the Security Council (P5): the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia, as potential candidates are subject to their veto power. Additional deadlock was avoided in the 1981 selection process, after the Council used straw polls, which allowed members to informally vote “encouragement” or “discouragement,” further reducing information on the SC’s positions.

As a result, citing its lack of transparency, commentators have unfavorably compared the SG selection to a papal conclave. Collusion was common, best shown with the expectation that candidates be fluent in both English and French due to France's protective beliefs that its language is one of “international diplomacy.” As well, there was an absence of diversity as before 2016, there were only three nominations of women recorded, and the position was allocated unequally between the five regional groups, with Western Europe receiving the most at six terms, then Asia with four, Africa with three, Latin America with two, and Eastern Europe with the least at zero terms.

Despite changes and new policy directives, such as the introduction of red and white ballots distributed to permanent and elected members respectively during straw balloting in 1991, the adoption of Resolution 51/241 in 1997, which included clauses like “in the course of the identification and appointment of the best candidate for the post…, due regard shall continue to be given to regional rotation and shall also be given to gender equality,” and the inclusion of a “no opinion” option in straw balloting in 2006, it would take until 2015 for the process to be significantly changed with the implementation of Resolution 69/321.

The document, a culmination of a years-long campaign from civil society groups like 1 for 7 Billion, the Elders, and the Campaign To Elect A Women UN Secretary-General alongside institutional support through the twenty-seven member state Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT) Group, declared that “the Presidents of the Assembly and Council start the process of soliciting candidates for the position through a joint letter addressed to all Member States, containing a description of [it], [and] inviting candidates to be presented in a timely manner, …circulate to [all] on an ongoing basis the names of individuals that have been submitted for consideration, ...[and] conduct informal dialogues or meetings with the candidates without any prejudice to any who does not participate.”

While France, the UK, and eventually the US were partial to the resolution’s reforms, China and Russia generally supported the status quo, although both countries did not oppose it once a consensus formed within the GA, especially among members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The 2016 selection started soon after 69/321’s adoption in September, with the joint letter issued in December. It was the most competitive and diverse race ever in UN history, at thirteen candidates who included nine Eastern Europeans and seven women. Particularly, Russia promoted Eastern European women like former Bulgarian UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and Moldovan foreign minister Natalia Gherman.

2016 too saw a major expansion of public transparency. Alongside releasing CVs, vision statements, and going to informal hearings in the GA, candidates appeared on television in a Global Town Hall hosted by Al Jazeera, where they answered questions to a global audience, some solicited by civil society. Nevertheless, Antonio Guterres, a Western European man was the frontrunner in the first five SC straw polls. In the final color-coded ballot, he received the most “encouraged” votes and was the only person to not earn any “discouraged” ones, with only one permanent and elected member expressing “no opinion.”

An aspect which was clearly frustrating to activists, was the continued confidentiality of Council proceedings, despite the inclusion of informal one-on-one candidate meetings. This especially came to light after secrecy had broken on the first straw poll, leading to both the GA President and 1 for 7 Billion to call for the results to be shared. However, there was some success, as the second and third placers, Miroslav Lajčák and Vuk Jeremić respectively, were Eastern Europeans, and the next four stops were taken by women, with Irina Bokova in the lead and Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva at the tail.

Nevertheless, as the selection process began once more, clear signs of an incumbency advantage appeared early on. Responding to an inquiry from the GA President, Antonio Guterres announced that he was seeking a second term on January 11, 2021, to which he informed the Security Council and the heads of each regional group. A month later, Portugal nominated Guterres for re-appointment on February 26th. Within the next few months, several major states and intergovernmental organizations, such as Germany, the European Union, and India expressed their support for Guterres’s campaign.

In contrast, access was restricted for insurgents and potential competitors. As the reforms in 2015 did not specify whether nominations had to come from member states, some individuals were nominated by civil society organizations or nominated themselves. According to PassBlue, the nonprofit UN-focused news site, these included a Turkish citizen focused on “fighting corruption,” an Irish-British journalist who ran as a protest candidate, and a German-French international mediator. The most visible candidacies came from Arora Akanksha, a Canadian UN Population Fund auditor, and Rosalia Arteaga, former President of Ecuador.

Akanksha, who at the time had only worked for the UN for 4 years, used her savings to promote herself through a website and social media pages, while Arteaga’s campaign was more organized, the idea of the civil society initiative Forward. Nonetheless, both hoped to challenge the “status quo” of the selection process and the intergovernmental institution more broadly. Both continued the movement to select a female Secretary-General, with Forward explicitly selecting Arteaga by the way of open, digital primaries searching for a “non-male candidate,” in an effort to make the process “more transparent and democratic.” Furthermore, Akanksha chose to run due to her views of the organization as “wasteful, paternalistic, and patronizing.”

These candidacies served to critique Guterres’s tenure, as although many praised him for managing crises such as the coronavirus pandemic, and the growth of nationalistic leaders on the world stage, human rights associations and other groups have called him out as lax at calling out governments who have committed human rights abuses, as well as internal issues like the ongoing sexual abuse scandal surrounding UN peacekeeping. Yet, confusion remained as to whether this was enough to be considered in the running. In May, when questioned on if state nomination was required, GA President stated that the essential part was the joint letter signed by himself and the SC President, while Ireland’s Ambassador, a state which was a part of the SC at the time said that it “will consider any candidates nominated by a UN member state,” a clear endorsement of state-backing.

For their efforts engaging with ambassadors, Akanksha and Arteaga did receive recognition, with the former receiving responses from seven governments when she requested time to present her candidacy, and the latter earning support from Ecuador for her candidacy. Both also received public approval in the form of receiving over 6,300 signatures in an online petition, and a rally of 8,000 in London. Despite this, the seven unnamed applicants received by the UN by May were never listed, and in the same month the SC unanimously nominated Guterres, which was later acclaimed by the GA. However, other aspects of the reforms were maintained, with Guterres releasing a new vision statement, and participating in an informal dialogue with member states and civil society that May.


A few months after the end of the selection, the GA adopted Resolution 75/325 on September 10, 2021 which both clarifies issues with the previous process, as well as presents future battlegrounds over this race. Two key points were its added language that candidates must be “submitted by at least one Member State,” and the clause which “notes that there is yet to be a woman Secretary-General” urging member states to consider gender parity for the next time. Nevertheless, several revisions under examination were rejected by members of the P5.

For example, the US led a block to prevent the adoption of clauses to review the length and renewability of the position as well as the possibility of the SC to present multiple candidates. Meanwhile, Russia and China pushed for language inviting civil society participation to be dropped, although they failed to remove the language accepting continued engagement at candidate hearings. By far the biggest debates surrounded gender policy, as the ACT group presented clauses to “urge” Member States to “prioritize female candidates,” which was significantly opposed by the P5.

Although the US, UK, and France largely viewed this a defense of the SC’s freedom and maneuverability to select whomever, Russia siding with previous statements argued that gender should not be a factor in the selection process. Negotiations then re-worded the statements to urge “states to consider nominating women candidates,” which was acceptable for the former group. Nevertheless, Russia suggested that the statement should include men as well which was rejected by ACT, the UK, and the EU (which represented France at the time). Therefore, China brokered a deal in which the statement was watered down further to its present form today.

Regardless of these setbacks, activists continue to push for further changes for the SecretaryGeneral selection. Groups have already begun to circulate names of Latin American women who could be nominees for 2026, the next region in the rotation, while the aforementioned Turkish citizen has already announced her candidacy for the position. In addition, groups such as 1 for 7 Billion have maintained lists of reforms, including clear timetables for the process, for the SC to present more candidates to choose from, and to change the position to a nonrenewable, 7 year term. Despite its lack of media coverage and competition, the 2021 selection showcases the continued evolution and conflicts at the heart of the United Nations.


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