Integrity and trust needed in today’s United Nations

Amidst the bustle of the United Nations in New York, the Foundation hosted a series of events on the integrity of the UN civil servant.


Dag Hammarskjöld is often credited with changing the image of the United Nations’ civil service, driving those who work under its blue flag away from politics and towards independence. Known to always carry the UN Charter in his pocket, he was strict in his adherence to rules, yet bold when insisting on the independence of his office.

“Hammarskjöld established the independent international civil service,” explained Henrik Berggren, author of a new biography about Dag Hammarskjöld, at a recent event in New York. “He defended the integrity of the UN civil servant and in doing so redefined the role of the civil servant on a global stage.”

How much of this integrity remains in the UN system today? Is there a need to revitalise the values of the UN and redefine what it means to be an international civil servant? Can Dag Hammarskjöld be a relevant example? These were some of the questions discussed at series of events that the Foundation organised in New York, which brought together a constellation of relevant groups including young UN civil servants, academics, policy advisors and UN Permanent Representatives working on ethics issues.

Commitment to UN Charter

The attendees emphasized that while much has changed since Hammarskjöld’s time in the UN there are certainly lessons that can be drawn from his example; specifically, his commitment to the values enshrined in the UN Charter. One young civil servant noted that better understanding of these values is needed in the UN system and suggested a public oath ceremony on the day of the international civil servants, reminding those who serve the UN of the values they are sworn to uphold.

Author Henrik Berggren discussing Hammarskjöld with UN civil servants.

But it was also noted that Hammarskjöld was a leader in a different time and some of his attitudes and ways of working would seem both un-modern and impractical today. The UN has, for example, grown from a few thousand employees in the 1950s to employing 44,000 staff members today. While Hammarskjöld could rely on a small group of trusted advisors, the Secretary-General of today needs to both consult and steer a much broader faction.

There could be value in looking back at this leaner UN though, as one participant pointed out. As funding for the UN becomes scarce, the organisation will need to do more with less while maintaining its integrity. In this, Hammarskjöld could be a particularly relevant example.

Cultural Change Required

To achieve a modern UN though there needs to be a culture change in the organisation, a changing of the status quo, as underscored by one of the Permanent Representatives present. They explained that for the organisation to stay relevant and remain true to “we the peoples”, the values enshrined in the UN Charter and which Hammarskjöld lived, need to be recaptured from the top to staff at all levels.

For this to be achieved it was emphasised that the UN needs to build trust among staff and implement a stronger evaluation system within the organisation, which ensures a reflection of the core values. It was also emphasised that the organisation needs to build a more common purpose which staff can rally around. At present, staff serve many different mandates and there is a lack of a clarified, common purpose.

But these issues also extend to the relationship between the organisation and its Member States. As stressed by one participant, trust is equally important between Member States and staff and at present much of this trust has been lost. UN leadership needs to ask Member States to place trust in the staff of the organisation, offering accountability in return.

In the end, it was acknowledged the organisation is made up of individuals who make decisions and act on them. On the other hand, their integrity is framed by the action of the UN as a whole. As such, leadership that demands accountability yet inspires with bold actions is incredibly significant, and Hammarskjöld’s legacy can offer valuable lessons for today’s United Nations.