The changing landscape of UN legal affairs

In this interview, Lance Bartholomeusz discusses how UN legal affairs are moving from risk averse to risk conscious leadership.

Meet Lance Bartholomeusz, General Counsel and Head of Legal Affairs Service at United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), interviewed by Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström for the Foundations’ The Art of Leadership blog series. Lance and Veronika co-facilitated a session on the International Civil Service hosted by the Stockholm-based Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA). This interview centres on how the UN legal services have changed over time.

Before joining UNHCR in 2016, Lance Bartholomeusz he was the Director of Legal Affairs of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), where he worked for 12 years. He has almost 30 years of legal experience in the United Nations, private commercial practice, a domestic appellate court and a government regulatory agency. Lance has published on various topics of public international law, including the privileges and immunities of the United Nations, amicus curiae before international courts and tribunals, and the mandate of UNRWA.

Lance, you are heading the legal department at UNHCR and before this, you were with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). When you think about the concept of leadership in the UN what comes to mind?

When I think about leadership, what comes to mind is that it should include qualities of a principled pragmatist, courage and inclusivity. Principled leadership is incredibly important for humanitarian organisations that I’ve worked with. This also includes pragmatism to make sure that you get things done according to principles in the complex political and operational contexts that we’re in. I believe leaders who embrace working with others and welcome diversity, differences and different viewpoints, and actually want to really listen and learn from others, end up having more motivated teams. And finally, courage is important when there are difficult decisions to implement, even in the face of quite a bit of criticism, both internally and externally.

You mentioned the need for ‘courage’. Do you think there’s enough of it and do you think there’s room for improvement?

I’m fortunate to work in an organisation where courage is valued. I think once you’ve worked through an issue, assessed the risks, considered a wide range of different viewpoints, and come to a decision or position on the issue, it is important to go forward courageously with that decision or position. This is particularly so when it comes to protection of the rights of refugees. I think that courage is something you can never have enough of in complex situations.

You are a lawyer by training and worked 12 years for UNRWA, including as Director of Legal Affairs. Since 2016, you are the Head of Legal Affairs at UNHCR which combines a huge variety of responsibilities. How did your function change over time, and how did it adapt to the new environment the UN is operating in?

My legal function as the general counsel supports our humanitarian operations. It covers human resources related law, contracting in the broadest possible sense and the status, privileges and immunities of UNHCR and our workforce. The way we work has changed in that we have moved from being risk averse to risk conscious. Now we’re part of a team that helps manage risks.

Your stereotypical image of a lawyer may be one who will say ‘I review something, there’s a risk of this happening, therefore you can’t do it’. Instead, what we do is that we identify that there are some risks, but we think of ways we can help manage them. There are always risks in humanitarian contexts and saving lives means taking risks, not avoiding them.

More concretely, we’ve moved from having a purely compliance function to being facilitators to help our colleagues find solutions. And that, again, comes back to the role of a humanitarian organisation where inaction is not an option, and where we need to find solutions. We will rarely say a complete ‘no’ and we will always work with our colleagues to see how we can achieve what was envisioned and requested. We also see ourselves as operational lawyers. This means that we don’t only come in at the end to add a couple of paragraphs to a contract. Since we’ve got a better sense of partnership working with governments, the civil society, and the private sector, we are often included at the beginning of complex negotiations, and we help structure transactions.

Probably the third element is moving from being just a legal function to what we call ‘lawyers plus’. ‘Lawyers plus’, are allies and collaborators within the organisation. For instance, we work closely with UNHCR’s Senior Coordinator for prevention and response to Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and sexual Harassment [SEAH]. We go beyond the purely legal issues.

Let me give you an example. Currently we are working on an innovative program that aims to provide victims of sexual harassment opportunity to go to a third party and securely record their testimony and be notified if the individual they recorded as the perpetrator was recorded by someone else. This way the victims have absolute control over how and to what extent this information is shared with UNHCR. Research and experience have shown that if victims of sexual harassment are aware that the perpetrator has been involved in other incidents, they are more likely to seek support or formally report the incident for investigation and accountability. This initiative is at an advanced stage of development with our private sector partners and we are aiming to launch towards the end of this year. We are hoping that this support tool will be used by victims and further empower them.

The 2017 Secretary-General’s report, ‘Special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse: a new approach, outlines a victim-centred strategy that is rooted in transparency, accountability and ensuring justice. How has UNHCR leadership taken these measures forward and what challenges have you faced?

In 2020 UNHCR adopted a policy on the victim-centred approach to complement a whole range of measures we have transparently taken to strengthen protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. There are several challenges that we have been faced with. One has been how to embed in a practical way the ‘victim centred approach’ into UNHCR policies and practice and how to work with the increased complexities of partnership and operations. We challenged ourselves to make sure that the victim is at the centre of what we do so that they feel that they can speak up and get the assistance and support that they deserve. We work on recommendations, and we advise the Director of Human Resources and the High Commissioner on disciplinary measures, including separation and dismissal. But we also give the alleged perpetrator the opportunity to reply to the allegations. We often need to pause, reflect and consult with the victim and explain to them the specific parts of the process. One of the challenges has been to assess the process from the victim´s perspective including issues of how well we are communicating, so we have now included our Victim Care Officer into the process.

While there is still room for improvement, we see more people coming forward with allegations, and more colleagues separated and referred to national authorities for criminal accountability in the last five years. To ensure that more people come forward, it is critical that they will be supported, and have confidential spaces where they can speak up and have the process under their control. Again, it will take time to convince more people to report, and there will always be exceptional cases where we could have done better.

When looking at the data, we see an increase in reporting of sexual exploitation and abuse. How do you respond to such comments?

This is a trend we witness across sectors and we, at UNHCR, strongly encourage victims to speak up. I think it’s important to ask, ‘What if we are getting no reports on potential allegations or abuse?’ We think if this would happen, we should be really concerned. It is quite evident from our surveys that it takes time to put the systems in place for people not just to hear the words, but also to hear the actions and to hear from other victims. What was your experience? Would you report the perpetrator again? You would hope that over time, such ideas would tail off as people get the message that sexual harassers and that sexual abusers will be punished for their actions within the UNHCR.

As you said in the beginning, one of the new roles of the Legal Affairs Department is to look at ways to diversify funding for UNHCR and its legal basis. What does this mean concretely?

The UN financing and funding landscape has changed rapidly. We cannot rely on ODA (Official Development Assistance) funding alone to tackle the crisis at hand with more than 100 million people forcibly displaced globally. Nearly one percent of the world’s population is displaced or, to put it differently, one in every 100 people has fled their home to find safety elsewhere. Those are staggering numbers if you think that in 2001, the number of displaced persons was less than 20 million. We need to find new ways to scale up quality funding. Our office is responsible to establish the legal basis for it. And this can be a complex process. Our statutes were set up with a traditional financing model in place. But what if this model is not viable anymore? How do you use the existing legal frameworks and create innovative ways of revenue? According to the recent Global Compact on Refugees, UNHCR is seen as the main catalyst of refugee assistance programs.

‘Nearly one percent of the world’s population is displaced or, to put it differently, one in every 100 people has fled their home to find safety elsewhere. That are staggering numbers if you think that in 2001, the number of displaced persons was less than 20 million’.

Our relationship with the World Bank has been very important in this regard and we continue to strengthen it through various new working streams. Let me give an example of innovative funding, since now we have a range of development actors and international financial institutions who fund refugee-assistance programmes. We have been, for example, facilitating the involvement of refugees in World Bank and other surveys, and addressing data protection questions of displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers. Another example of innovative financing is the Refugee Environmental Protection Fund. Through this Fund, funds that go into green energy refugee programmes will be monetised and turned into carbon credit. The funds would go back to the Refugee Environmental Fund to create a larger fund for more green activities. And lastly, the Global clean cooking program in Bangladesh where carbon credits bring livelihoods and protect the environment.

Related to the new challenges around financing, continuous pressure on ODA funding had direct implications on contractual modalities of UN staff. More UN staff are on temporary contracts. How is UNHCR adapting to the new environment?

We need to change the narrative. To overcome this at UNHCR we do not refer to our workforce as ‘staff’ or ‘non-staff’ and we are now enabling equal access to learning and training services both for short-term and long-term contracts and enabling access to training materials in Spanish and French. Virtual onboarding and learning have also accelerated the way we work. We are all colleagues serving refugees together. Fair treatment is critical, and we try to treat all employees in a fully inclusive way.

‘The UN is a very rewarding place, but you need to have determination and patience. The things that make the UN great are the same time things that make it a bit frustrating. There are a lot of rules and complexities, so you will need patience, good timing and the right team that pushes you forward’.

The average age at the UN is 46. Generation Z makes up 58% of working age population, but its share in the UN is 0.1% systemwide. What changes do you see with the younger workforce coming in with new ideas and qualifications? Looking back at your own career, what is your advice for a young person pursuing a career at the UN?

 It helps that we have a clear mission and mandate, and people join us to be part of the mandate. We make sure that everyone’s contribution is welcomed. I think the young generation’s speaking up culture is important and impactful embracing diversity and inclusion. The UN has been rising to the challenges to talk about difficult topics by bringing together colleagues with diverse backgrounds at a workshop for innovative ideas. This was a great way to discuss difficult topics and to give youth a platform to bring their ideas forward.

As for my advice for young professionals: Choose an organisation based on what matters for you. If you do that then you will be highly motivated. [It] drives everything. Check carefully what your motivations and values are and, on this basis, choose the entity that you want to work for. If you choose the humanitarian community, you can get a chance to work with colleagues who are really passionate about what they do and get a chance to make a difference in people’s lives.

The UN is a very rewarding place, but you need to have determination and patience. The things that make the UN great are the same time things that make it a bit frustrating. There are a lot of rules and complexities, so you will need patience, good timing and the right team that pushes you forward. That’s where determination and knowledge come in. Expect bureaucracy, embrace it and make it work for you. Be clear eyed of your expectations of where you are going to work, as with everything, nothing happens overnight.

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström By Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström

Veronika Tywuschik-Sohlström used to work as Programme Manager at the Foundation, covering the financing, form and functions of the UN development system, and UN leadership.