The Secretary-General - The role of the un secretary-general

In 1986, then Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar was invited to give the Cyril Foster Lecture at Oxford University. His thoughts on the institution of the secretary-general in an era of international evolution deserve attention.

First, he suggested that a secretary-general must avoid two extremes: "On one side is the Scylla of trying to inflate the role through too liberal a reading of the text [of the Charter]: of succumbing, that is, to vanity and wishful thinking. On the other is the Charybdis of trying to limit the role to only those responsibilities which are explicitly conferred by the Charter and are impossible to escape: that is, succumbing to modesty, to the instinct of self-effacement, and to the desire to avoid controversy. Both are equally damaging to the vitality of the institution. I submit that no secretary-general should give way to either of them."

Pérez de Cuéllar stated that he used the annual report to the General Assembly as a way to initiate action and galvanize efforts in other parts of the UN system. He pointed out that the secretary-general sometimes remains the only channel of communication between parties in conflict, and therefore must be able to improvise in the context of "good offices" missions. A disciple of "quiet diplomacy," Pérez de Cuéllar said that the secretary-general must not only be impartial, but must be perceived to be so. He observed that a secretary-general needs enormous patience; he does not have the option of being frustrated or discouraged. He suggested that the secretary-general must "try to understand the roots of insecurity, the fears and resentments and the legitimate aspirations which inspire a people or a state to take the position they do."

He delineated four priority areas for attention by the world body: (1) disarmament, and particularly, nuclear disarmament;(2) human rights; (3) "the shaming disparity of living standards between those who live in the developed world—the North—and their less fortunate brethren in the developing world—the South"; and (4) the world response to natural and man-made disasters.

In closing, Pérez de Cuéllar set forth his own essential requirements for a secretary-general:

The Secretary-General is constantly subjected to many and diverse pressures. But in the last analysis, his office is a lonely one. He cannot stand idle. Yet helplessness is often his lot. The idealism and hope of which the Charter is a luminous expression have to confront the narrow dictates of national policies. The Secretary-General's efforts must be based on reason but, behind many a government's allegedly logical position, there are myths and silent fears. The voice of the Charter is often drowned by clashes and conflicts between states. If the Secretary-General is to rise above these contradictions in international life, two qualities are essential.

One is faith that humanity can move—and indeed is moving—towards a less irrational, less violent, more compassionate, and more generous international order ….

The other essential quality is to feel that he is a citizen of the world. This sounds [like] a cliché, but the Secretary-General would not deserve his mandate if he did not develop a sense of belonging to every nation or culture, reaching out as best he can to the impulse for peace and good that exists in all of them. He is a world citizen because all world problems are his problems; the Charter is his home and his ideology, and its principles are his moral creed.

The role of the secretary-general has varied with the individual and with the time and circumstances. This chapter contains an outline account of the initiatives taken by the seven secretaries-general in various international crises and areas of conflict. Additional discussion of some of the main areas of conflict may be found in the chapter on International Peace and Security.

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