Why values matter for the international civil servant

In this post, Henning Melber pays tribute to Dag Hammarskjöld’s ethical principles and argues that multilateralism demands an autonomous international civil service.

This week marked the first ever International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. It is a clumsy name for a day but it pays tribute to an important milestone: the centenary of the international civil service, a profession which finds its origins in the Versailles Peace Conference and the birth of the League of Nations.

The day, established by a United Nations General Assembly resolution adopted last year, seeks to build on this legacy and reaffirm ‘the relevance of multilateralism and international law’. With that goal in mind on the said day, 24 April, the UN held a discussion (PDF) about the challenges facing those dedicated to a rules-based world order and how to renew commitments to the UN Charter.

For the UN, the Charter and ensuing normative frameworks are the guiding documents and principles. But Member States, despite having ratified these codified norms, usually follow their own interests and agendas. They often differ in interpretations and hold conflicting perspectives suiting their own purposes. Multilateralism is a complicated process of give and take and more often than not displays fundamental differences in policy. Even the adoption of the resolution for the commencement of the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace did not receive the approval of all delegations (Israel and the United States voted against it).

There remains a tension between the interests of states and their governments and the global values adopted in the variety of conventions. Promoting and maintaining a rules-based world order, and mediating between the conflicting interests, requires an autonomous international civil service. It is crucial for operations within the global governance system since its conceptual inception more than 100 years ago at the League of Nations. Already then, international civil servants were expected to be loyal to the aspirations of the international community and to remain neutral and independent of any authority outside their organisation.


Pioneering Secretaries General

As the first Secretary-General of the League of Nations from 1919 to 1933, Sir Eric Drummond played a crucial role in the conceptualisation of the international civil service. The Encyclopedia Britannica maintains that his chief aim was to ‘build up a strictly international institution in which it was understood from the first that all officials were to act independently from their own national authorities’ and ‘to establish the organization on a basis of unimpeachable solidarity’. A recent book pays tribute to this pioneer and his legacy.

But it was Dag Hammarskjöld, the UN’s second Secretary-General (from 1953 to 1961), who elaborated the concept. He set lasting standards that survive to this day. At the core of his ethics were integrity, loyalty to the principles of the UN Charter, independence from any national or regional interests and the courage to uphold these values.

He made his commitment to these standards very clear on 10 April 1953, when he made his first statement to the General Assembly after taking the Oath of Office. He emphasised that the Secretariat’s work ‘must be based on respect for the laws by which human civilization has been built. It likewise requires a strict observance of the rules and principles laid down in the Charter of this Organization. My work shall be guided by this knowledge.’

After eight years in office, in his last speech to the staff on 10 September 1961 – reproduced as an appendix in this publication – he summed up the continued challenge as follows:

What is at stake is a basic question of principle: Is the Secretariat to develop as an international secretariat, with the full independence contemplated in Article 100 of the Charter, or is it to be looked upon as an inter-governmental – not international – secretariat providing merely the necessary administrative services for a conference machinery? This is a basic question and the answer to it affects not only the working of the Secretariat but the whole of the future of international relations.

Eight days later, Hammarskjöld and 15 people in his company died when their plane, approaching the Northern Rhodesian mining town of Ndola, crashed under unclarified circumstances. Like so many others, they sacrificed their lives in the execution of a mandate seeking to promote peaceful solutions to conflicts.


Principles versus geostrategic politics

In my new book, released on the same day as the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace”, I pay tribute to Hammarskjöld’s commitment to ethical principles when facing the self-determination struggle on the African continent. The UN became an important forum for the growing demands for self-determination, which gained momentum during the 1950s. As Secretary-General, Hammarskjöld was a prominent player during the unfolding decolonisation processes, culminating in the Congo crisis of 1960–61.

The book looks at Hammarskjöld’s role in this, analysing the scope and limitations of his office under the unequal power relations of the post-World-War-II order. I also outline the emergence of normative frameworks and Hammarskjöld’s continued emphasis on these when dealing with the East–West confrontation and its geostrategic implications. I explain why these normative frameworks, their interpretation and implementation, matter.

I argue that his support for the struggles for national sovereignty shows that individuals and their running of office do matter, despite all limitations imposed through the policy of the big powers. Hammarskjöld’s numerous statements and speeches document his strong and coherent ethics concerning the independence of the international civil service. His diplomacy sought independence and did not comply with the demands of the most influential global players.


Why values matter

But while the importance of individual leadership is exemplified, emphasis is also on the limitations such an office and its incumbent have. In the book I critically reflect on some of the failures and flaws during Hammarskjöld’s time as Secretary-General. After all, while he set the bar very high and remains widely respected for this, he was far from unfailing. Nevertheless, I argue, his term ended with his integrity intact. This was evident from the fact that towards the end of his time in office he was portrayed through a lens of suspicion and mistrust in the West and open calls for resignation in the East. Revealingly so, the newly independent states remained to a large extent supportive. For them he was ‘their’ Secretary-General.

My book contends that despite all limitations, values matter for a global governance body seeking to solve or at least contain conflicts through multilateral diplomacy based on normative frameworks. It highlights the battles over the power of definition by different interest groups in the era of decolonisation and the East–West conflict, as well as the potential role and influence of an individual in charge of the UN Secretariat. It recognises Hammarskjöld as an outstanding international civil servant, who believed in the spirit and words of the UN Charter and the virtues of a service guided by loyalty to its values and principles.

A hundred years after the creation of the International Civil Service, Hammarskjöld deserves to be remembered for leading by example. The end of his last speech to the staff at the Secretariat can be read and understood almost like his final wish:

Those of you who have had the opportunity of working in a national civil service or the secretariat of a national government know, and understand fully, the added responsibilities and problems that one has to face when working in an international secretariat. These responsibilities cannot be discharged, and these problems cannot be solved, save by our own inner dedication to the cause which the world Organization is pledged to serve under the Charter. I am sure that all of you will continue to respond to any demand made on this Organization in the service of this common cause.


Henning Melber By Henning Melber

Henning Melber is Senior Adviser and Director Emeritus. He has served as Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University, was Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek, and Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. Henning is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a Senior Research Fellow with the Institute for Commonwealth Studies/University of London. He directed the Foundation from 2006 to 2012. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and a Habilitation in Development Studies. In 2017 he was elected President of the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes (EADI).