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After Annan

Who will succeed Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General is a hot question among diplomats. Shashi Tharoor, UN Under Secretary General, explores what the job involves.

“The most impossible job on earth” was how the first United Nations Secretary General, Trygve Lie, described the post to his successor, Dag Hammarskjold, in 1953. Time has not made the job any easier.

The framers of the UN Charter gave the Secretary General two distinct functions: “chief administrative officer of the Organization” and also an independent official whom the General Assembly and Security Council can entrust with certain unspecified (but implicitly political) tasks. Each holder of the office must demonstrate whether he is more Secretary than General.

Paradoxes abound. The Secretary General is expected to enjoy the backing of governments, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council, but be above partiality to any of them. He establishes his credentials by bureaucratic or diplomatic service, but, once elected, must transcend his past and serve as a voice of the world, even a “secular Pope.”

The Secretary General is entrusted with assisting member states to make sound and well-informed decisions, which he is then obliged to execute, but he is also authorized to influence their work and even to propose actions that they should undertake. He administers a complex organization and serves as head of the UN agencies, but must exercise this role within budgetary and regulatory constraints imposed by the member governments.

True, the Secretary General has an unparalleled agenda-shaping authority. But he does not have the power to execute all his ideas, and he articulates a vision that only governments can fulfill. He moves the world, but he cannot direct it.