Selecting the United Nations Secretary-General

2016 will see the selection of a new Secretary-General of the United Nations, as Ban Ki-moon’s second term ends on 31 December 2016. Even though there is no limit to the number of terms a Secretary-General may serve, none has held office for more than two terms.

But how does it all work? We explain the appointment process here:

1. How is the Secretary-General selected?

According to article 97 of the UN Charter, “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

This rather general description has been further specified by a range of General Assembly resolutions and the Security Council Rules of Procedure. So this is what happens:

  • Nominations

There is no detailed outline for the nomination process. All UN Member States are encouraged to engage and the President of the Security Council is supposed to consult with the General Assembly on a regular basis. Furthermore, the President of the General Assembly has the right to consult with Member States and recommend potential candidates to the Security Council. Nominations have traditionally been made mostly my Member States though there is no rule governing who can make a nomination.

As for the timeframe, the candidate should ideally be appointed one month prior to the end of the current term (General Assembly resolutions 51/241 from 1997 and A/Res/60/286).

  • Security Council

United Nations Security Council (file photo). UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

In the first stage of a two-step process, the Security Council adopts a resolution recommending a candidate to the General Assembly. Even though technically there is no limit to the number of recommendations, it has been practice to nominate one candidate only (in line with GA resolution 11 (I) of 1946). If more than one candidate is being considered, balloting will be conducted.

The negotiations take place in closed session, as outlined in Rule 48 of the Provisional Rules of Procedure of the Security Council.

The decision requires at least nine votes in favour, including those of the 5 Permanent Members. Therefore, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US have a de-facto veto power (confirmed by GA resolution 11 (I) of 1946).

  • General Assembly

United Nations General Assembly (file photo). UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

In a second step, the General Assembly considers the candidate nominated by the Security Council and votes upon him or her. This deliberation also takes place in a closed session, as required by Rule 141 of the Rules of Procedure of the General Assembly. The nominee requires a simple majority to be selected.


2. Who were the previous Secretaries-General?

  • Trygve Lie (Norway), February 1946 to his resignation in November 1952
  • Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), April 1953 to his death in a plane crash in September 1961
  • U Thant (Burma/Myanmar), November 1961 to December 1971
  • Kurt Waldheim (Austria), January 1972 to December 1981
  • Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru), January 1982 to December 1991
  • Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), January 1992 to December 1996
  • Kofi Annan (Ghana), January 1997 to December 2006


3. Who will be the next Secretary-General?

Obviously, nobody knows yet.

However, there are some indicators: General Assembly resolution 51/241 from 1997 stressed the importance of regional and gender balance. Since Eastern Europe is the only UN regional group that from which a Secretary-General has not been selected, resulting in speculation that a candidate from this region might have higher chances.

Furthermore, all eight Secretaries-General in the Organization’s 70-year history have been men, and many are calling for a female nominee, with several campaigns for a woman Secretary-General having formed around the 2016 election process.

4. Fun Fact

The Security Council uses color-coded straw ballots to vote on the candidates. This practice was established by the “Wisnumurti Guidelines“, proposed in 1996 by then UN Permanent Representative from Indonesia, H.E. Ambassador Nugroho Wisnumurti.


5. More Information

See the UN News Centre FAQ

News Centre: For first time in history, UN General Assembly presidents put forward proposal to open selection of next UN Secretary-General to include input from all Member States


A recap of Wednesday’s highlights at the General Assembly

Halfway through the busiest week of the year at UN Headquarters in New York, our coverage of the week’s meetings and special events continued on our social media platforms. Here are some of the highlights:

As the world confronts the biggest refugee and migration crisis since the Second World War, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today convened a high-level meeting on the issue and outlined eight guiding principles to improve preparedness.

As preparations continue for next year’s World Humanitarian Summit, a high-level event convened by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs focused on the need for all actors to work together to address the growing needs around the globe which are due to a number of factors but mainly driven by armed conflict.

Also today, a ministerial meeting at the Security Council discussed the settlement of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The UN Secretary-General called for using all the tools available to the United Nations to help steer the Middle East and North Africa towards a path of freedom, safety and dignity, citing in particular the obligation of the international community to ensure a peaceful solution to the conflict in Syria and accountability for serious crimes committed there.


In the early afternoon the Palestinian flag was raised for the first time at United Nations headquarters in New York. A few weeks earlier the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the flags of non-member observer States to be raised at the world body’s headquarters and offices following the flags of its 193 Member States.

Readouts from other events taking place today:

General Assembly quick links