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Job at a Glance

Q. Who elects the Secretary-General?

A. The Security Council nominates a Secretary-General to the General Assembly which then votes to appoint the Council's choice. The Security Council is barred from nominating an individual that is from one of Security Council's five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK, U.S.).

Typically, the post of the Secretary-General is rotated after two five-year terms so that the position is held by someone from another region of the world. Member states belong to one of the five regional groups: African States, Asian States, Eastern European States, Latin American and Caribbean States, and Western European and Other States. Kofi Annan, who succeeded Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt in 1997, was re-elected in 2001 although Africa had already held the seat for two terms. Because of Annan's popularity among member states and UN staff, the Asia states, who were up for the seat, did not challenge Annan's reelection.


Q. What qualifications and skills should a Secretary-General have?

A. According to the officials who were drawing up plans for the UN during World War II, the Secretary-General should be young and have diplomatic or political experience. Most importantly, the Secretary-General should know "when to force an issue and be dynamic" or when to "be content as purely administrative official; and when on a middle course be a moderator...."

In reality, when it comes time to appoint a Secretary-General, it is purely a political decision. During the Cold War, qualifications and leadership qualities came second to the U.S. and Soviet Union being able to agree on a nomination. These days, the most important factor is whether the permanent members of the Security Council, especially the U.S., will back the candidate. It's been said that when looking for a Secretary-General, some of the permanent members look for someone who will be "more secretary than a general."

One quality shared by past Secretaries-General is that they have all been career diplomats for their own countries. Kofi Annan is the first Secretary-General who has risen through the ranks of the United Nations. Another essential skill is the ability to speak English and French, two of the six official languages of the UN.


Q. How long does the Secretary-General serve?

A. Although the Charter does not specify the length of time the Secretary-General serves, the standard term is five years. After five years he can be re-elected for an additional term. Traditionally, the Secretary-General serves a maximum of two terms.


Q. What is the role of the Secretary-General?

A. The UN Charter designates the Secretary-General as "chief adminstrative officer" of the organization and head of the UN Secretariat with its 50,000 international civil service officers. The General Assembly, Security Council and other organs of the UN may also assign the Secretary-General certain tasks to perform. This means the Secretary-General has to oversee hundreds of programs, funds and agencies, and balance the budget -- a large portion of which is often overdue -- plus represent the UN to the media and in conferences around the world.

The Secretary-General also has the authority, under Article 99 of the Charter, to bring to the attention of the Security Council matters that threaten international peace and security. Article 99 is interpreted as providing the Secretary-General with an independent political role on issues before the Security Council.

Aside from his formal functions, the Secretary-General is expected to uphold the values of the UN and act as its moral authority.

Past Secretaries-General have helped shape the office of the Secretary-General as it is today. Dag Hammarskjöld, considered the most effective and dynamic Secretary-General, widened the role of the Secretary-General to act, according to UN historian Brian Urquhart, as "negotiator, crisis manager and director of active peace operations." Trygve Lie was the first Secretary-General to bring an international crisis (Soviet troops in Iran) to the attention of the Security Council -- this now standard practice was highly controversial at the time.


Q. What are the Secretary-General's powers?

A. Though the expectations for the Secretary-General are high, he has no real powers to help him carry out decisions. As Boutros Boutros-Ghali once said, "I can do nothing. I have no army. I have no money. I have no experts. I am borrowing everything. If the member states don't want [to do something], what can I do?" The largest task before the Secretary-General, therefore, is summoning the political will of UN member states to take action to resolve a problem.


Q. How much is he paid?

A. The Secretary-General's salary, which has not changed since 1997, is set at $227,253. The amount is determined by the General Assembly. By comparison, U.S. President George W. Bush earns $400,000 per year. As the Secretary-General's spokesman Fred Eckhard has commented, "Nobody would do this job for the money." In addition to his annual salary, the Secretary-General also receives a budget for personal entertainment as well as free housing and security protection.


Q. Where does the Secretary-General live?

A. The Secretary-General lives in a UN-owned mansion on Sutton Place, in an exclusive neighborhood in Manhattan's East Side. The residence in Sutton Place is within walking distance of the UN Headquarters and has a view of the East River.


Q. How does the Secretary-General travel?

A. As you might expect, the Secretary-General travels frequently but surprisingly, the Secretary-General does not have his own plane -- he travels via commercial airplanes. If a commercial flight is not available in a specific region, a country's president or national leader will usually provide a private plane. The expenses incurred are then subtracted from the country's UN membership dues.


Q. Has a Secretary-General ever resigned?

A. Trygve Lie, elected in 1946 as the first Secretary-General, resigned in November 1952. Lie's advocacy of UN military action against North Korea invoked the wrath of the Soviet Union to such an extent that Moscow refused to extend his term and boycotted all official functions involving the Secretary-General. Writing in his memoirs that he "resented such uncivil behavior toward a man and his family," Lie decided to resign. Lie had also antagonized the U.S. when he allowed the Soviet Union's withdrawal of troops from Iran to be dropped from the Security Council's agenda. Furthermore, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict/Palestinian dispute, he supported the partition plan approved by the General Assembly and encouraged military action in order to enforce it.


Q. Has there ever been a female Secretary-General?

A. None of the seven Secretaries-General have been women. Before Kofi Annan was nominated as Secretary-General in 1997, there were women identified as potential candidates, including Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata and Mary Robinson, a former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A General Assembly resolution and other UN initiatives have been designed to to appoint more women to senior posts and improve working conditions for women within the UN, but results may be long in coming. As of 2000, women made up only 33.5 percent of the staff in the UN system.



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