15 JANUARY 2011


Former Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar could not attend a Symposium in Delphi, Greece, on the role of the U.N. Secretary-General and the U.N. in the 21st Century, due to health reasons. However, he sent the following brief note:

"The United Nations needs further extensive reform to deal effectively with the complex global challenges of the 21st century. The UN Charter, itself, needs revision. Another thing that is badly in need of change is the procedure followed in the selection of secretaries-general. I do not need to elaborate here on the pivotal role played by the UN Secretary-General in the leadership of the United Nations and in the ever continuing struggle for human security. Nor do I need to describe the well-known inadequacy of the present system of selection. Instead I will record below a few thoughts on 1) the qualities to be looked for in a secretary-general; 2) the procedure for selection; and 3) the problems that future secretaries-general are likely to face, including consideration of the status of the deputy-secretary-general.

The Qualities

The Preparatory Commission for the United Nations defined, and the General Assembly agreed in its first session, on the qualities that a secretary-general requires. The list, which is included among the symposium papers, needs little or no change but I wish to highlight one requirement listed by the Commission that might be overlooked. I have in mind the skill to "form a team recruited from different countries...and build the necessary team spirit." I owe much of the success that I achieved to working with a team.

But for me what is most important among these desirable qualities is clear and simple: a secretary-general must be a person of integrity with the highest ethical standards.

He or she should have the courage to maintain independence and the wisdom to exercise independence constructively. I believe that future secretaries-general should be appointed to a seven year, non-renewable term to lessen their vulnerability to pressure from Member States.


The Canadian paper, to which I have already referred, contains excellent, albeit complex, proposals on procedures to follow in identifying and appointing future secretaries-general. What I believe is most important is that all Member States have, in some representative form, a voice in the selection process. Campaigning by governments or individuals for a candidacy should be made unacceptable.

Problems to be Faced

In my view, candidates for the post of secretary-general need to be judged not only by their personal qualifications, but also by their likely capacity to deal with problems they will face. Future secretaries-general will inevitably encounter the following problem areas - among many others:

Integration of the United Nations System

The United Nation must now function in an increasingly integrated world, in which major problems are inter-related. Threats to human security are likely to dominate the UN agenda throughout the present century. These threats will demand the best efforts of the entire UN system. Unfortunately, the agencies and programs of the UN, unlike the world they serve, are for the most part distinctly un-integrated. In my own experience UNDP and the World Bank were often working at cross purposed on development.

I understand there are now at least 8 conflict prevention offices spread among the agencies, programs and Headquarters political departments. Only the findings and recommendations of the Headquarters offices are available to the Secretary-General and even they operate largely in isolation from each other.

Both ECOSOC and the General Assembly have authority under the Charter to coordinate and review the work of the functional agencies. Neither has exercised this authority to noticeable effect.

The authority of the Secretary-General is limited to the central United Nations organization and, even there, can be tenuous as it is UNDP and UNICEF. The Secretary-General serves as chair of the Chief Executives Board (formerly ACC), the largely ineffectively body responsible for inter-agency coordination but only as first among equals.

Yet, in many ways, the Secretary-General is the face of the "UN" which, in the common understanding, includes the whole system minus the financial institutions. Given the Secretary-General's broad responsibilities for the maintenance of international security, he or she must try mightily to bring the full force of the System to bear on human security problems. The System needs to function as a linked network of coordinated planning and action. The problem is likely to become even more troublesome in light of the intensity and interrelationship of the crises that now threaten global security.

The Status of the Deputy-Secretary-General

One way to decrease, at least minimally, the problems that a future secretary-general will bear would be to enhance the status and responsibilities of the Deputy-Secretary-General.

I do not believe that the potential of the position is being fully exploited. The area where the Secretary-General most needs high level help is in bringing the system to work more closely together. For this reason, I suggest that the Deputy Secretary-General be given major responsibility in this area. This will entail frequent contact with senior officers in the Specialized Agencies including the Agency heads (sometimes known as "barons"). To enhance the standing of this position and facilitate accomplishment of its mission I believe that the appointment of the Deputy-Secretary-General should have the approval of the General Assembly, thus signaling that the incumbent has the support of Member States.


During my first term, the United Nations faced a financial crisis the repercussions of which still endure. The United States began to withhold a substantial portion of its contribution mainly because of Congressional restrictions. The US indebtedness eventually surpassed a billion dollars. I had the unpleasant task of going periodically, hat in hand, to Washington -- even into the oval office. When I raised the problem with President Reagan (it was new to him), his immediate reaction was sympathetic. He said that in his opinion, the UN should be like a country club. "If you don't pay your dues, you lose your membership." But despite the president's acute suggestion, the debt was not paid until two administrations later.

I understand that the US is no longer withholding a major portion of its required contributions. A future secretary-general will, hopefully, not have to make begging trips to Washington. But the money problem (and the larger resource problem that I will not go into here) will remain. At present, two countries, the United States and Japan, are responsible for just under 50 per cent of the regular budget. The viability of the UN is thus subject to the vagaries of the budgetary processes in two, in this case, like-minded countries. The problem for a future secretary-general will be personally to resist the potential pressure that such heavy reliance on one or two states carries with it. Moreover, a future secretary-general will need to shield the Organization from arbitrary administrative influence. The only way that this problem can be reduced is to find a better formula for financing the United Nations. I tried to do this but, in the end, had to leave the problem to my successors.