The first Sec-Gen was elected, not appointed

70 years ago today, Trygve Lie became the first UN Secretary-General. Following his recommendation by the Security Council, the General Assembly held a secret ballot, which saw Lie, a former Norwegian foreign minister, elected with 46 votes to 3 (the video below shows the voting). His election followed the selection process originally envisioned for the role - a stark contrast to the opaque manner in which his successors have been appointed.

What could have been

The UN Charter affords the appointment just one sentence in Article 97: “The Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” The involvement of both bodies reflects the realities of the Secretary-General's operating context. But informal practices have skewed this balance, relegating the General Assembly’s role and increasing further the influence of the Security Council’s five permanent members.

Initially, proposals were made for the Council to put forward candidates for the Assembly to vote on by secret ballot. However, in January 1946, the General Assembly defined a process aimed at promoting stability in the immediate post-war environment, adopting resolution 11(1), which stated that it “would be desirable” for just one candidate to be recommended to it by the Security Council and for debate on the appointment to be avoided in the Assembly.

Since then, the appointment process has become an extreme interpretation of this 70-year-old non-binding resolution. The Security Council makes its decision behind closed doors, subject to secret bargaining, including on other senior UN appointments. In the past, some member states did not know who was on the ticket until after the selection had effectively been made.

It has not always been so. In 1950, deadlock in the Security Council over Lie's re-appointment saw the General Assembly again play a decisive role. Despite objections from the Soviet Union - a permanent member of the Council - it voted by 46 votes to 5 (and 8 abstentions) to extend Lie's term of office. It also varied his term of office, from the five years envisaged in resolution 11(1) to three years.

Re-injecting transparency

70 years on, the selection process is gradually becoming more open and inclusive. As the practices surrounding the appointment process are largely informal and customary, this has not required protracted negotiations on amending the UN Charter.

In September last year, the General Assembly passed an historic resolution, setting out much-needed reforms to the selection process, including clear selection criteria and dialogue between candidates and member states.

This resolution was followed by the release of a joint letter by the presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council, calling for the formal nomination of candidates "in  timely manner" and committing to circulating candidates' names on an on-going basis. The letter marks – for the first time in the UN's history – the start of an official selection process for this crucial role.

1 for 7 Billion is now calling on states, parliaments and civil society to put forward high-calibre candidates for the post. We are also calling for the next UN leader - to be appointed in the second half of 2016 - to stand for a single, non-renewable term.

A single term of office would further strengthen the UN Secretary-General’s role. It would provide future candidates with the required political space to develop and implement a more independent, long-term and visionary agenda. Removing the need to campaign for re-election and the constraints that this imposes would also give future Secretaries-General the leeway required to be bolder in pushing for this agenda to be implemented.

Photo: Secretary-General Trygve Lie. Copyright UN Photo