Duty to shout? A debate on international civil servants in today’s world

While impartiality is easy to define in the abstract, it is much more difficult to operationalise when it comes to the everyday choices facing UN personnel.

Recently, the Foundation joined forces with Young UN: Agents for Change to facilitate a series of seminars and moderated dialogues aimed at unpacking the unique demands of United Nations leadership and exploring the evolving role of the international civil service in the context of current events.

The first of these conversations, a webinar titled ‘Duty to shout? A debate on international civil servants in today’s world’ was held on 2 September 2020 and focused on the principle of impartiality. Although finding solutions to such complex issues can be difficult, the event generated a number of ideas about how UN senior management might provide clarity and explain challenges requiring additional discussion in order to identify constructive next steps. These ideas included:

  • explaining how the principles of the international civil service, in particular impartiality, are operationalised across the UN in different contexts;
  • developing tools to facilitate norm-based, principled leadership and ethical decision-making among individual employees;
  • coordinating guidance and messaging issued by different parts of the organisation; and
  • establishing clear channels for staff to seek guidance on, discuss and advocate for the values and principles enshrined in the UN Charter.

Below, we reflect on the key takeaways from the webinar, with a view to catalysing debate and contributing to tangible solutions.

Sovereignty, politics and rights

Social movements such as Fridays for Future, Me Too and Black Lives Matter, which have clear ideological linkages to the UN’s work and international policy frameworks, are also connected – or, at least, perceived to be connected – to domestic political agendas. This overlap creates ambiguity regarding whether and how the UN should engage, as according to Article 2 of the UN Charter:

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state . . .

At the level of the individual, this ambiguity is even more apparent. For instance, it is evident in the debate surrounding UN staff participation in the anti-racism protests that broke out across the US in the wake of George Floyd’s death. On the one hand, as members of a norm-based organisation, UN civil servants should defend the organisation’s values, which include fundamental human rights. On the other, principles of independence and impartiality oblige UN civil servants to avoid taking sides or publicly expressing convictions on controversial matters.

On 3 June 2020, the UN Ethics Panel issued guidance on staff regulations concerning political expression, stating that participation in public demonstrations may not be consistent with the principles of independence and impartiality required of international civil servants. The guidance raised concerns that the UN was wavering in its commitment to human rights. However, subsequent discussion revealed that more complex considerations had informed the Ethics Panel’s communication.

For instance, the Black Lives Matter movement, which organised many of the anti-racism protests, has also widely promoted a campaign to defund the police. Given the campaign challenges public governance structures and institutions in the US, it was considered a both a domestic political question and a source of controversy. Uncertainty surrounding the protests’ compliance with curfews and other legal measures enacted by state and local officials to curb the spread of COVID-19 also informed the Ethics Panel’s guidance, as did concerns about the implications for the UN should any of its personnel be arrested while participating.

In addition to their responsibilities as duty bearers of the multilateral system, international civil servants are individual rights holders entitled to peaceful assembly. There are a number of historical examples of UN staff participating in peaceful public protests in a personal or professional capacity, one the most prominent being when Ralph Bunche joined Dr Martin Luther King, Jr in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Despite being universally agreed, human rights are regarded as inherently political and even controversial by certain states, societies and communities. During the ‘Duty to shout?’ webinar, speakers and participants reflected on examples of human rights abusers instrumentalising activism by painting human rights defenders and their activities as politically motivated or a threat to national security in order to avoid international accountability.

Several questions arose that remain unanswered. For example, in the current political context, can one’s duties as an international civil servant supersede one’s individual human rights (such as the right to peaceful assembly) and, if so, under what circumstances? What can the UN do to decouple human rights from politics? In instances where the two cannot be delinked, what can UN leadership and managers do to help personnel assess the risks associated with participation in public actions? It is questions such as these that must be addressed in order to gain a clearer understanding of the international civil servant’s roles and responsibilities in today’s world.


Identifying and clarifying the grey areas

The debate surrounding staff participation in anti-racism protests elicited discussion around more fundamental concerns related to operational clarity. For example, considerable focus was placed on definitions of and distinctions between neutrality, independence and impartiality, particularly in relation to the UN’s integrity and its defence of human rights. To some extent, that exchange echoed Dag Hammarskjöld’s own reflections, as articulated in his 1961 speech at Oxford University:

. . . the international civil servant cannot be accused of lack of neutrality simply for taking a stand on a controversial issue when this is his duty and cannot be avoided. But there remains a serious intellectual and moral problem as we move within an area inside which personal judgement must come into play . . . if integrity in the sense of respect for law and respect for truth were to drive him into positions of conflict with this or that interest, then that conflict is a sign of his neutrality and not his failure to observe neutrality – then it is in line, not in conflict with, his duties as an international civil servant.

Some speakers argued that ‘neutrality’ has become discredited as a result of the term being invoked to excuse delayed action and non-intervention by the UN. To this end, speakers and participants expressed feeling that the potential consequences of UN interventions are sometimes given greater consideration than the costs of inaction, with the genocides in Srebrenica and Rwanda cited as poignant examples of the latter. These examples also highlight how closely the UN’s legitimacy and authority are tied to its ability to defend global norms and enforce international commitments.

While Srebrenica and Rwanda serve as powerful illustrations, they are not representative of many of the everyday ethical dilemmas that the UN and its personnel face. In these more frequent but often less exceptional cases, the question is rarely whether to exercise leadership by defending the UN’s values and principles, but how best to do so. This segment of the webinar reflected on the distinction between the UN’s official position on an incident (or responses to it), which is generally articulated by the Secretary-General, and individual staff member agency in expressing a position, either in a personal or professional capacity.

The complexity of this question is evidenced by the fact that there was no consensus among speakers regarding when and under what circumstances individual staff members may participate in public protests, nor regarding when and how they may express political convictions in a manner consistent with their obligations as international civil servants. However, some speakers suggested that organisational- and individual-level responsibilities are linked. In this regard, by providing avenues (either institutional or external) for UN personnel to defend the organisation’s values and principles on an individual level, the UN may be able to strengthen perceptions of its accountability at the organisational level.


Assessing roles, risks and context

Roles, risks and context were prominent themes throughout the webinar’s discussion, most often in relation to accountability and effectiveness. Speakers reflected on the role of the UN as an incubator and champion of global norms, while noting its limited enforcement capacity. Despite the latter – or perhaps because of it – there was a common view that the UN should be proactive in safeguarding global norms, from the values and principles of the Charter to the commitments agreed in international law and policy frameworks.

Acknowledging the supportive role of the international civil service as an administrative body, speakers and participants also drew attention to its more transformative function as an agenda-setter and torch-bearer for the UN’s ideals. Some participants felt strongly that if an individual does not speak out in the face of human rights abuses and other offences, they become complicit in them and so does not deserve to be called an international civil servant. Proponents of this view asserted that moral courage is required to maintain the integrity of the international civil service. Without disputing this point, subsequent remarks added that the behaviour of senior officials is more closely scrutinised than that of their junior and mid-level peers, which encourages restraint. On the other hand, seniority affords a greater amount of influence and is accompanied by a responsibility to lead by example.

Taking a comparative perspective, one speaker reminded participants that public institutions, civil society organisations and private sector entities have complementary functions based on their respective mandates, resources, constituents and expertise. How and when to exercise influence, therefore, should depend on which ‘hat’ one is wearing. In some instances, working through back channels and behind closed doors may be more effective than public protests, and vice versa. At other times, a combination of methods applied in coordination by different stakeholders may have the biggest impact. International civil servants are neither politicians nor watchdogs. However, they do have access to policy-makers and therefore can facilitate inclusion and create public space for debate by leveraging the UN’s convening power.

Remarks related to risk similarly had organisational and individual dimensions. At the organisational level, speakers noted that submitting to the will of belligerents instead of acting in the interest of the victims of conflict, poverty and human rights abuses would cause the UN to become irrelevant. Although it serves ‘we the peoples’, the UN is directly accountable to Member States. Participants cautioned against the reputational risks of applying double standards should the UN’s leadership be reticent to intervene or speak out against abuses perpetrated by powerful Member States. At the same time, it is understood that the UN system financing can be exploited by Member States for political purposes. From a pragmatic perspective, it is dangerous to bite the hand that feeds you.

Speakers underscored the importance of, at an individual level, assessing potential risks to oneself, to others, and to the organisation and its goals. The actions of an individual, even if morally justified, can provoke a backlash with knock-on effects for UN personnel and implementing partners. Furthermore, the risks associated with a given situation are not always clear. Peaceful protests, as recent examples demonstrate, sometimes devolve into violence that presents a physical risk to participants. Local context emerged as an important factor, with participants stressing that the level of risk associated with, for example, publicly defending human rights varies significantly by duty station.

This exchange prompted reflections on where the UN’s voice is most needed, and the role of UN personnel in driving the organisation’s normative agenda. Speakers debated the extent to which institutional decisions about staff participation in protests and other public acts of political expression can address context-specific considerations. Also, relatedly, whether such decisions should sit with headquarters or be delegated to the field level. A diverse range of positions on these issues were in evidence, generating fresh questions about how fairness, consistency, trust and empowerment feed into the policy-making processes of complex bureaucracies.


The road ahead

International civil servants operate in a complex and hyper-political environment that today looks wildly different from how it did 100 years ago. And yet, save for a few tweaks and revisions in 1945, the principles that define their roles and responsibilities remain largely the same as when the League of Nations was founded. That these principles – like the values enshrined in the UN Charter – have endured, speaks to their continued relevance. However, the ways in which they are understood and applied in the face of new and changing circumstances requires close examination.

While impartiality – like independence, integrity and international loyalty – is easy to define in the abstract, it is much more difficult to operationalise when it comes to the everyday choices facing UN personnel. As summarised above, the ‘Duty to shout?’ webinar reflected on real-life examples, highlighting the intricacies and ambiguities inherent to this challenge. The conversation that took place provides a starting point for more focused thematic discussions aimed at developing concrete solutions and providing UN senior management with the opportunity to provide additional clarity.

In the meantime, the Foundation is pleased to share ‘The International Civil Service: A Resource Compendium for United Nations Personnel’. The compendium compiles excerpts from the laws, regulations, policies and guidelines that are directly applicable to international civil servants at the UN, and presents their main takeaways thematically. It is a tool for facilitating discussions on norm-based, principled leadership, and serves as a lens for understanding the policy frameworks relevant to addressing challenges such as those identified in the webinar.

Kate Sullivan By Kate Sullivan

Kate Sullivan supported the Foundation’s programmatic work with external relations and strategic planning from 2020-2022. Before joining the Foundation, Kate held positions at the Global Challenges Foundation, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Global Partnership Alliance, the U.S. Peace Corps and United Technologies Corporation. She holds a Master in Public Administration from the George Washington University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan. Kate is a Paul Harris Fellow (Rotary) and a member of the three-time world champion Rönninge Show Chorus.

Young UN: Agents for Change By Young UN: Agents for Change

Established in 2016, Young UN: Agents for Change is a cross-UN, global and inclusive network working towards a shared vision of a UN that fully embodies the principles it stands for. Young UN recognises the need for genuine change if the UN is to effectively meet the challenges of this century and network members are committed to play their part.