Between internationalism and integrity

Examination of how individual UN bureaucrats balance their loyalty to the international system, and why their personal integrity and loyalty affect the work of the organisation.

International politics and law may happen far away from everyday life of most members of the global society, but decisions made at UN, World Bank and World Trade Organization headquarters in New York, Washington, Geneva and Vienna influence the lives of people all over the world. From trade tariffs to denuclearisation, from development aid to intellectual property protection, from telecommunication standards to fishing zones, from climate change to cultural heritage protection, the list of issues discussed and affected at the global level is very long and none of them are inconsequential.

In this context, it is tempting and commonplace to think of the bureaucracies of the institutions as inert machines where the choices of individual bureaucrats are predetermined, and their values and morals cannot possibly make a difference. After all, international politics is the world of diplomats and power, and ‘faceless clerks’ do not have the power to make laws. Let us consider how individual UN bureaucrats balance their loyalty to the international system, and why their personal integrity and loyalty affect the work of the organisation.

From my personal experience, it is not the lofty cosmopolitan values that have the biggest influence on the behaviour and work of the UN civil servants. The interpretation of those values can vary greatly, especially between bureaucrats who distribute malaria pills in refugee camps, those who prosecute war criminals, those who prepare budget proposals, and those who deal with worker compensation claims of individual staff members. However, the way UN civil servants treat each other as individuals, as well as journalists, students, interns, non-governmental organisation representatives, is what forms the core of the impact that the UN has in the world. Some bureaucrats understand this, as a UN staff member pointed out to me in person – ‘when I am at the office, I am the UN; when I go to the store, I am still the UN. It is everything I do, the dignity of the position and the respect I give to people.’

Vested with trust

Individuals matter. The actions of individuals make a difference. The integrity and loyalty of individuals shapes global politics and international law. The choices of individuals change thousands-strong institutions like the United Nations every day.

Now, the above sentences are not idealistic slogans that I am going to argue against with complex academic arguments, or put multisyllabic scientific labels on, or pull apart with wordy methodological tools. In fact, all of the above statements can be read in both the positive and the negative. Regardless of how we interpret the outcome, individuals matter because everything that happens at the UN is done by people and affects people; and that is how actions, character and choices of people with names, job descriptions, morals, education, and e-mails, makes a difference.

United Nations in NYC

International organisations’ officials are not elected, but they are vested with the trust of the entire global society as well as the government representatives with whom these bureaucrats interact at UN headquarters. The history as well as the present state of international civil service shows how the ethical core of the institution is in conflict between values and interests.

The League of Nations – the Birth of the International Civil Service

The system of global institutions of today was conceived at the end of World War I with the creation of the League of Nations in 1920. The League was the first intergovernmental organisation that was created to maintain world peace; thus, the first Secretary-General of the League, Sir Eric Drummond, realised that such an institution required a bureaucracy that would be independent from national governments[1]. The civil servants working at the League from the very beginning were not limited to clerk and conference duties, but supported the negotiations of diplomats through research, information dissemination, translation, etc. They constituted a ‘truly international civil service–officials who [were] solely the servants of the League and in no way representative of or responsible to the Governments of the countries of which they were nationals.’[2] This ‘internationalism’ of the global bureaucracy is a central quality that was inherited by the United Nations civil service and all other international organisations of today. In essence, the League and the UN were created to achieve a goal that lays beyond the reach of a single government, as well as the collective of governments, and so it required and requires the work of a body of people that serve that goal rather than their governments.

However, from the time of the League until the present day United Nations, the notion of internationalism cannot be separated from the interest of national governments because the nation-states that created the international organisations retained the decision-making powers. Drummond confirms this by summarising the notion of what is at the core of the international civil service – the qualities of the individuals and the national governments:

‘The two great qualifications for these posts apart from general efficiency seem to me to be firstly a belief in the League and a desire to serve it, and secondly the capacity of placing yourself in the position of the other man. It is by these qualities that the members of the Secretariat have been able to acquire the confidence of the fifty-four Governments whom it is their duty to serve impartially and to the best of their ability; if this spirit can continue to permeate the organisation, the Secretariat will, I think, remain one of the most important factors in the development of international life …’[3]

In the academic writings of the time, the idea of national background has been intertwined with even the knowledge and capacities of international civil servants:

They must have been educated in their own countries. A man or woman who has lived abroad most of his life is, as a rule of little use from our standpoint because he does not represent the culture and ethos of his native land. A thoroughly international staff can only be satisfactorily composed from thoroughly national elements. A collection of colourless cosmopolitans could never contain the variety of experience, standpoint, and ideology which is necessary to efficiency.’[4]

It is a fact that public international law is built to protect national sovereignty. Therefore, it is the loyalty to the purpose of the organisation, and an ‘international’ outlook that is an extension of a ‘national’ one, that formed the core of the international civil service from its very beginning.

UNMIL Special Representative Karin Landgren awards a female Ghanaian peacekeeper during a medal parade in Buchanan, Liberia, Friday, 16 November, 2012.
UNMIL Photo/Staton Winter

Ethics in Practice Today

The failure of the League of Nations did not affect the ideas of international bureaucracy that were born out of the organisation. Although, as UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld pointed out in 1961, the behaviour of Italian and German civil servants revealed ‘there was a danger of national pressures corroding the concept of international loyalty.’[5] The UN Secretariat inherited the spirit of the mandate of the League bureaucracy, including the core of the Staff Regulations and Rules.

‘The Officials of the Secretariat of the League of Nations are exclusively international officials and their duties are not national, but international.’ (1926 Secretariat of the League of Nations Staff Regulations, Article 1)

‘Staff members are international civil servants. Their responsibilities as staff members are not national but exclusively international.’ (2018 UN Staff Regulation 1.1)

The UN Secretariat upholds ‘the aims, principles and purposes of the United Nations’[6].  It is the national governments that decide what actions to take, through voting in the General Assembly and Security Council, in pursuit of those goals. Therefore, the principles, values, goals and position of the UN is a politically-motivated, power-controlled order that is based on the collective of sovereign nations. Therein lies a fundamental contradiction between an organisation that strives for unity, and an administration that works towards a unity that is a dis-unity because of the disparate interests of the different governments.

Despite the push for transparency in the past twenty-odd years, the information on the daily workings of international organisations is overwhelming, badly-organised, inaccessible and often incomprehensible even to legal and political scholars. What becomes public is often war, scandals or very difficult to understand resolutions, treaties, statements and the like. The decision-making power is in the hands of government representatives who pursue national interests through negotiations – a process that often involves military power, coercion and dishonesty.

In ‘The International Civil Servant in Law and in Fact’, Dag Hammarskjöld points out that, on a day-to-day basis, individual civil servants make choices based on a continuous moral self-examination, rather than on a fixed idea of what the UN stands for. This ‘value-scan’ is necessary precisely because the international civil service is a collection of people from different backgrounds, who serve in an ever-changing environment. Hammarskjöld also underlined that the source of morality can vary from written to unwritten because,

‘the everyday work of international civil servants requires them not only to deal in the currency of legal arguments and instruments but also to draw upon moral purposes and technical means that are present in their institutional settings as well as their own personal values and professional training.’[7]

UN Charter Art 101 (3) establishes that the UN staff has to meet ‘the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity’, wherein integrity encompasses the ethical norm of behaviour for the entire UN bureaucracy. This notion has been elaborated in documents like the Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service enacted by the International Civil Service Commission, as well as internal UN regulations. UN Staff Regulation 1.2 contains the following ‘Core values’ for UN staff:

‘(a)      Staff members shall uphold and respect the principles set out in the Charter, including faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women. Consequently, staff members shall exhibit respect for all cultures; they shall not discriminate against any individual or group of individuals or otherwise abuse the power and authority vested in them;

(b)       Staff members shall uphold the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity. The concept of integrity includes, but is not limited to, probity, impartiality, fairness, honesty and truthfulness in all matters affecting their work and status;’ [emphasis added]

In this rule, as a representative of the internal administrative law of the UN, the internationalism and integrity of the UN civil servants are set at the same level as standards of behaviour. But while internationalism is a cosmopolitan ideal, a model for the organisational culture, integrity is a quality that refers to the moral fiber of the individual as expressed in his or her work. Most significantly, because these values affect concrete actions – speaking the truth, according fair treatment – the integrity of individual civil servants thus affects the unity and wholeness of the institution that he or she is loyal to more strongly than abstract cosmopolitan ideals.



Dag Hammarskjöld outside the UN building in New York, 1953. (Photo: UN/DPI)

Of course, the principles and character are not completely divorced and in conflict. Quite the contrary, in order to pursue world peace and universal human rights, international civil servants require an open mind and courage. To quote Dag Hammarskjöld,

‘At their best the representatives of this legacy show the quiet self-assurance of people firmly rooted in their own world, but they are, at the same time and for that very reason, able to accept and develop a true world citizenship. At the best they are not afraid to like the man in their enemy and they know that such liking gives an insight which is a source of strength. They have learned patience in dealings with mightier powers. They know that their only hope is that justice will prevail and for that reason they like to speak for justice. However, they also know the dangers and temptations of somebody speaking for justice without humility. They have learned that they can stand strong only if faithful to their own ideals, and they have shown the courage to follow the guidance of those ideals to ends which sometimes, temporarily, have been very bitter. And finally, the spirit is one of peace…’[8]

More Stories, More Humanity

The work of organisations like the UN happens far away from the global constituents, and that is why the humanity of its bureaucracy is very difficult to perceive. I have summarised some of the human stories relating to the ethics of the international civil service in a chapter in a recently published volume Towards Responsible Global Governance, edited by Professor Jan Klabbers, Dr Maria Varaki and Dr Guilherme Vasconcelos Vilaca, which is available for free online here.



[1] The International Institute of Agriculture had a dedicated international Secretariat from 1905, which was only hired, however, with approval from the respective governments prior to nomination. The League and the UN have come closer to independence in the hiring and duties of staff. Issues with nomination and representation of the major powers have nevertheless persisted in the United Nations. See International Institute of Agriculture Statute, Art 27. See the Balfour Report, as well as Art 1 of the League of Nations Staff Regulations.

[2] See E. Drummond, “The Secretariat of the League of Nations”, Public Administration, 1931.

[3] See Drummond, supra note 2.

[4] Harold Butler, Some Problems of an International Civil Service, 10 PUB. ADMIN. 376, 378 (1932).

[5] See D. Hammarskjöld, “The International Civil Servant in Law and in Fact”, 30 May 1961

[6] See Staff Regulation 1.2 (e), ST/SGB/2017/1

[7] See G.F. Sinclair, The International Civil Servant in Theory and Practice: Law, Morality, and Expertise, The European Journal of International Law Vol. 26 no. 3, 2015

[8] D. Hammarskjöld, ‘On the Uppsala Tradition’ From Address after Receiving Honorary Degree at Upsala College, East Orange, N.J., June 4, 1956, in Cordier and Foote, vol. III: Dag Hammarskjöld 1956-1957. New York and London: Columbia University Press 1973, p. 164.

Diliana Stoyanova By Diliana Stoyanova

Diliana Stoyanova is PhD Candidate at the Erik Castrén Institute, Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki in Finland. She is writing her thesis on the ethics of the international civil service with evidence from whistleblower cases. Diliana is Bulgarian and has lived and worked in Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Finland and the US. In her free time, she writes and performs poetry and is a trained classical singer.