From the League of Nations to the United Nations: Milestones for the International Civil Service

In this piece, Karen Gram-Skjoldager charts six crucial milestones in the early history of the International Civil Service and argues its fundamental cornerstones were internationality, independence, and loyalty.

Publication details

Title:From the League of Nations to the United Nations: Milestones for the International Civil Service
Type:100 Years of International Civil Service
Author:Karen Gram-Skjoldager

For any multilateral organisation today, an international civil service is crucial. Without diverse, independent and loyal professionals to manage its day-to-day operations, it is impossible to plan, promote and implement international polices and agendas. Indeed, ideas of internationality, independence, and loyalty were recognised as crucial cornerstones when the first professional international civil service was established 100 years ago with the creation of the League of Nations.

The League of Nations was founded as part of the Versailles Peace Treaty in June 1919, which also saw the creation of the International Labour Office (ILO) and the Permanent Court of International Justice. However, the statesmen and diplomats who created these new international organisations had given little thought to the form and function of the largest administration of this new multilateral system: the League Secretariat. Article 6 of the League’s founding document, the Covenant, merely stated that a secretariat should be created comprising ‘a Secretary General and such secretaries and staff as may be required’.

While the creation of the League Secretariat itself marked a critically important initial milestone in the development of a modern international civil service, the first Secretary-General of the organisation, former British senior diplomat Sir Eric Drummond, more or less had a free hand to organise the Secretariat the way he saw fit. Working out of small office in Cumberland House in London with a staff of just three, Drummond started designing his new administration.² The humble beginning of the Secretariat stood in stark contrast to Drummond’s ambitious vision, which would have an impact on the role of international civil servants over decades to come.


100 years of International Civil Service

This publication is part of a series issued by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation commemorating 100 years of international civil service, which originated in 1919 with the birth of the League of Nations.

The series features inspirational and reflective think pieces on the concept of the international civil service by former and present United Nations’ officials, as well as representatives from civil society and academia.