Reappointment of António Guterres as UN Secretary-General brings up questions of Transparency and Inclusion in appointment process

The recent re-appointment of António Guterres as the Secretary-General of United Nations for a second term brings back memories of his taking the seat in 2016 through a reformed selection process aimed at transparency and inclusion. However, with no other official member states’ proposal for any other candidate, his re-appointment remained unchallenged. This, writes SAKSHI WADHWA, leads to questions on whether the reformed selection process was able to improve the selection process of the Secretary-General or if it was an exercise meant only for optics. 


ON June 18 this year, Portuguese politician António Guterres was re-appointed as the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) for a second consecutive term. The Ninth UN Secretary-General, his first term will end on December 31, 2021. Due to his re-election, he will stay at the helm of the UN till the end of 2026.

The Secretary-General of the UN is appointed for a five-year term, and till now all but one have been re-selected for a second term.

Guterres is a former Prime Minister of Portugal, and a polyglot with fluency in Portuguese, English, French and Spanish.

He has previously served at the UN as the High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR); during his tenure, he was able to broaden the categories of people UNHCR would seek to protect.

It is interesting to note that soon after resigning during his second term at the helm of the Portuguese government, Guterres would regularly go to slum neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Lisbon to give free maths tuitions to the children there, with strict instructions to journalists not to film or record him doing that. 

His first five-year term, which started in January 2016 has been unique due to two reasons: first, he was appointed under the ‘reformed selection process’ that came into place in 2016; second, it was during his tenure that the world got hit by a pandemic which impacted the entire world altogether, simultaneously. His first tenure has been marked by several progressive public statements voicing concern at violations of international legal norms by various state actors, but disappointingly little actual action by the UN to back that rhetoric.

UN General Secretary Selection Process: Transparency And Inclusion?

The UN Charter, signed in 1946, speaks little about the selection process of the UN Secretary-General. Article 97, however, says that the candidate, “shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.”

The General Assembly, being active in the selection process in the earlier days of the UN, created Resolution A/RES/1/11 calling the Security Council to lead the selection process of the Secretary-General.

The following is the selection procedure prescribed therein:

A joint letter is framed and sent by the President of General Assembly and that of the Security Council to all the 193 member states asking for nominations for the position of Secretary-General.

The names received from letters sent by the member states to the President of General Assembly and that of the Security Council are then circulated to all member states, on an ongoing basis.

The Security Council then deliberates about the nominations in a private, closed room and sends its recommendation. However, the five permanent members of the Security Council (France, United Kingdom, U.S.A., Russia and China) have veto power, and any one of them can use the same to block decisions on a particular name.

A draft resolution declaring the selected candidate is then sent to the General Assembly to take action.

The General Assembly passes a resolution, through consensus, officially appointing the Secretary-General.

However, voting is adopted in case of lack of consensus or if a member state requests for the same. In the case of such voting, the decision is taken with a simple majority unless a decision with a two-third majority is proposed. In either case, voting is to be done through a secret ballot.

Reformation Of Selection Procedure

In 2016, during the selection process for the ninth UN Secretary-General, a reformed selection procedure came into place, with the idea to make the process of selection more transparent and inclusive.

Official nomination documents of candidates, including their CVs, photos and vision documents of around two thousand words which they submitted, were published online.

The concept of informal briefings or informal public dialogue sessions came into place involving civil society organisations and all the member states of the UN, in which the candidates were required to present their vision documents and answer questions within a two-hour time slot. All this was broadcast in a town-hall-style webcast, which is available to be watched the world over. 

In 2015, the Presidents of the General Assembly and the Security Council asked member states to present women as well as men for the position of Secretary-General, leading to five female candidates being nominated by member states in 2016. (There were actually seven in total, but the candidature of two of them was eventually withdrawn)

Struggle For Reforms

The reformation of the selection process for the UN Secretary-General had been a long time coming. Demands for the same had been raised on many occasions in the UN’s recent history.

One noteworthy instance is from the year 2006 when near the end of then-Secretary General Kofi Annan’s term, Canada floated a proposal for reforms to the Ad Hoc Working Group (AHWG), the body that takes care of revitalizing the work of the General Assembly every year. Simultaneously, a group of NGOs had also been campaigning for more openness in the selection process.

However, before anything fruitful could be drawn, Ban Ki-Moon was appointed as the next Secretary-General. The reforms finally took place in 2016 due to timely actions and a combination of fortuitous factors.

Two groups: Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) that included 25 states, and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) came together, with the former taking care of planning and formulation, and the latter securing the backing of two-thirds of the UN’s member states to push for reforms in the Secretary General’s selection process. Croatia co-chaired the AHWG, facilitating the proposal going ahead.

The 70th General Assembly President, Mogens Lykketoft also played a crucial role in the kicking off the selection process in a timely manner in 2015 itself, facilitating transparency in the General Assembly’s process and participation, and designing the format of open webcasting of candidates’ hearings.

Finally, civil society organisations like ‘The Elders’ and ‘1 for 7 Billion’, along with many of the NGOs that had pushed for change in 2006, led sustained advocacy campaigns and issued public statements, thereby creating momentum for change that resulted in the reformed selection process.

Selection Of The Secretary-General in 2021 :

Guterres has been the only candidate whose name was proposed by a member state, that being his native country, Portugal. All of his seven challengers lacked this official backing from member states, making it quite evident that Mr. Gutteres was set to return as Secretary-General.

Disappointingly, even with the reformed selection process in place from 2016 onward that seeks to offer transparency and inclusion, there was no proposal for candidature from any member state except Portugal.

One of the challengers to Guterres was Indo-Canadian UN official Arora Akanksha, a 34-year old female citizen of Canada with Indian roots who, at the time of filing her application, had worked for four years with UN as an auditor.

In her public statements, Akanksha chided the organisation as wasteful, paternalistic and patronizing towards its younger staff. She also highlighted the wastage of resources in organizing conferences and other administrative work, which could be better used elsewhere. According to her, the UN had forgotten its purpose. 

Her statements received a mixed reception. Some called her naive, while others applauded her courage. Her candidature, however, wasn’t backed by any member state.

Another point worth noting is that the President of the UN General Assembly asked Guterres if he would like to continue for the second five-year term before sending off a letter to member states for nominations, thereby officially kick-starting the selection process. This raises questions regarding the selection process.

Apart from that, no official candidate’s proposal from any member state except Portugal, and no women ever being appointed as UN Secretary-General points at the need for making the organisation more inclusive, open and transparent. Though the efforts towards the same through the reformed selection process initiated in 2016 is laudable, a lot more needs to be done to truly make the UN an ‘international body’ representing all nations and genders as equals, without hierarchies.

(Sakshi Wadhwa completed her Master’s degree in political science from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and is an intern with The Leaflet. The views expressed are personal.)

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