The United Nations elected its ninth secretary-general in October, former Portuguese prime minister Antonio Guterres. The top U.N. post has been described as "the hardest job in the world." As Laura Ling explains in today's Seeker Daily report – that's about right.
A major part of the challenge is that, although the secretary-general has enormous responsibilities, the official duties of the position are not that well defined. As a result, every secretary-general has interpreted the job differently.
According to the U.N. charter, the secretary-general is the leader and spokesperson for United Nations, chairing most meetings and creating the official annual report. But unofficially, the U.N. leader is a world moderator, often acting as diplomatic mediator in international disputes. Former secretary-general Kofi Annan, who served from 1997 to 2006, was particularly skilled in this regard, as he navigated conflicts while consistently prioritizing human rights across the globe.
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The U.N. leader must consider the perspectives and interests of 193 different countries, while acting as impartial mediator and moral authority. The secretary-general must often take an active role in high-stakes international disputes. Dag Hammarskjöld, for instance, was tasked with forging peace between Israel and Arab States during the Suez Crisis. Javier Perez de Cuellar brokered the ceasefire that ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.
The process of selecting the secretary-general is nearly as open-ended as the job itself. The U.N. charter simply stipulates that the five-member Security Council recommend a candidate to the General Assembly, who vote up or down. The actual mechanics of this process take place behind closed doors for the most part, although the U.N. began holding open hearings in 2016.
The secretary-general must assume a number of roles, some seemingly contradictory: diplomat and advocate, activist and bureaucrat, moderator and administrator. When Guterres assumes this powerful but ambiguous position in January, he'll have his work cut out for him.
-- Glenn McDonald
Council on Foreign Relations: The Role of the UN Secretary General
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