The Secretariat carries out the substantive and administrative work of the United Nations as directed by the General Assembly, the Security Council and the other organs. At its head is the Secretary-General, who provides overall administrative guidance. The main functions of the Secretariat are:
- To gather and prepare background information on various issues so that government delegates can study the facts and make recommendations;
- To help carry out the decisions made by the different organs of the United Nations;
- To organize international conferences;
- To translate speeches and distribute documents into the UN’s official languages;
- To keep the public informed about the work of the United Nations.
As of 30 June 2012, the Secretariat had some 43,000 staff members around the world. As international civil servants, staff members and the Secretary-General answer to the United Nations alone for their activities, and take an oath not to seek or receive instructions from any Government or outside authority. Under the Charter, each Member State undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and to refrain from seeking to influence them improperly in the discharge of their duties.
The United Nations, while headquartered in New York, maintains a significant presence in Addis Ababa, Bangkok, Beirut, Geneva, Nairobi, Santiago and Vienna, and has offices all over the world.
The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council for a period of five years. Equal parts diplomat and advocate, civil servant and CEO, the Secretary-General is a symbol of United Nations ideals and a spokesman for the interests of the world’s peoples, in particular the poor and vulnerable among them. The current Secretary-General, and the eighth occupant of the post, is Mr. Ban Ki-moon of the Republic of Korea, who took office on 1 January 2007 and was appointed to a second term starting 1 January 2012.
The Secretary-General’s functions include:
- Bringing any problem that threatens world peace to the attention of the Security Council;
- Proposing issues to be discussed by the General Assembly or any other organ of the United Nations;
- Acting as a “referee” in disputes between Member States;
- Each Secretary-General also defines his role within the context of his particular time in office.
One of the most vital roles played by the Secretary-General is the use of his “good offices” — steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading. Sometimes, as a result of his mediation, the problems are solved without ever having to go to the Security Council or the General Assembly, or before the problem escalate into open conflict.
Under the Charter, the Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council. Mr. Ban’s predecessors as Secretary-General were: Kofi Annan (Ghana) who held office from January 1997 to December 2006; Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), who held office from January 1992 to December 1996; Javier Pèrez de Cuèllar (Peru), who served from January 1982 to December 1991; Kurt Waldheim (Austria), who held office from January 1972 to December 1981; U Thant (Burma, now Myanmar), who served from November 1961, when he was appointed acting Secretary-General (he was formally appointed Secretary-General in November 1962) to December 1971; Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), who served from April 1953 until his death in a plane crash in Africa in September 1961; and Trygve Lie (Norway), who held office from February 1946 to his resignation in November 1952.