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Integrity crucial to making the ‘world’s most impossible job’ possible

What can the new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres learn from his predecessor Dag Hammarskjöld?

Today, the UN General Assembly will formally appoint its new Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, following a unanimous vote in the Security Council last week. Guterres no doubt understands that this appointment is a tremendous honour and a great responsibility, but has the world’s newest top-ranking international civil servant really understood the immensity of the job?

When Dag Hammarskjöld was appointed to the same position in 1953, he was famously greeted by his predecessor with the words ‘welcome to the most impossible job on this earth’. While Ban Ki-moon may decide to not meet with Guterres with such a daunting phrase, it is clear the next leader of the UN faces both incredible challenges and enormous expectations, with solutions demanded for everything from imminent threats to peace and security, to geopolitical crises and UN reform.

To begin to tackle these issues a Secretary-General must not only be an excellent leader, but also a good administrator and innovator, a good diplomat, a mediator and peacemaker, as well as a good spokesperson and communicator. The job may indeed appear to be impossible, but it is now Guterres’ turn to try to live up to the expectations.

Looking back to look forward

It is easy to agree that the world has changed dramatically since the UN was formed, and this also means that there is no set blueprint for how to succeed in the role of being the leader of the UN. Even so it may be wise to take a look in the rear view mirror and see how the previous eight incumbents have acted and how their leadership has reflected on the UN and the world.

Perhaps I am biased, given that I work on his legacy, but I believe that out of all of them Dag Hammarskjöld may serve as one of the best role models and sources of inspiration for the next Secretary-General. During his time in office, Hammarskjöld served with utmost moral integrity and loyalty to the core values and principles enshrined in the Charter of the UN, which remains as relevant today as it did then. He shaped a lasting concept of the role and responsibilities of the international civil servant and as a result created standards of integrity against which his successors continue to be measured.

The integrity of the international civil servant

The international civil servant should be only loyal to and guided by the values and principles as laid down in the UN Charter (referenced in articles 100 and 101): ‘…the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the Organization.’

It is important for the UN to revitalise these principles and put them at the forefront in all activities – and this is of course of utmost importance also for the new UN leadership, who should embrace the concept of integrity and strongly anchor it into the organisational culture. In fact, it may described as their duty.

As Hammarskjöld stated in his Oxford speech of 1961 on the integrity of the international civil servant: ‘If the international civil servant knows himself to be free from… personal influences in his actions and guided solely by the common aims and rules laid down for, and by the Organization he serves and by recognized legal principles, then he has done his duty…[Ultimately] this is a question of integrity’.

How would Hammarskjöld have handled this?

It is also fascinating to note how other Secretaries-General have been inspired by Hammarskjöld and looked back at how he dealt with issues more than half a century ago. In this year’s Dag Hammarskjöld Lecture, given by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he said that “[i]n all of our work, Dag Hammarskjöld remains a touchstone for courageous, principled action” and mentioned that he thinks of Hammarskjöld every day when carrying out his duties and feels “privileged and humbled to be serving in the role Hammarskjöld once filled so masterfully”.

Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in his lecture of 2001 stated: ‘There can be no better rule of thumb for a Secretary-General, as he approaches each new crisis, than to ask himself, ‘how would Hammarskjöld have handled this?’’.  These former UN leaders believed in Hammarskjöld’s example and much like Hammarskjöld himself, I believe that with integrity, ethics and upholding the values enshrined in the UN Charter, you can come a long way in making the impossible job possible.

The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation congratulates Mr Guterres to the appointment as Secretary-General for the United Nations and wishes him best of luck navigating the road ahead. If he ever needs a guiding compass, we hope he can turn to Hammarskjöld to help find his way.

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Karin Abbor-Svensson By Karin Abbor-Svensson

Karin Abbor-Svensson is a former Programme Manager for Hammarskjöld's Legacy at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. She has previously worked at the UN Headquarters, the Council of Europe, the Finnish Ministry of Defence, the Canadian Embassy in Stockholm (Invest Québec) and the International Council of Swedish Industry (NIR). She holds a Master's degree in French and English from Åbo Akademi University and a BA in international law.