The Role of the United Nations Ethics Office:The Ethics of International Civil Service in the Light of the Foundation and Mission of the United Nations

The very fact that the United Nations was born is something of a miracle.  We do not say that in a derogatory sense as if it could not have been born if it were not for an accident or luck. Nor do we speak of a supernatural event.  Rather the statement is meant to convey a sense of awe and wonder—that something amazing happened in the consciousness of humanity when the United Nations was born.  Although, it did have predecessors in the League of Nations and every time the world’s powers met after a series of wars to adjudicate the principles of peace such as the Congress of Vienna after the Napoleonic Wars.  One could also say the United Nations was bound to emerge, which at minimum—as suggested by Michael Ignatieff’s non-natural-based views on human rights—meant that a multilateral institution was required after two World Wars (hardly separated by a generation) to guarantee against future global evils.  One does not need to search for divine, metaphysical or natural grounds to justify human rights: we need them because we human beings can’t be trusted not to hurt one another in the future.  But that is not the point being made here, namely an inherent skepticism towards human nature’s capacity to be and do good. 

Given nearly four hundred years of the international relations framework based on a system of competing nation States one wonders how much more time would have passed before a birth of a global institution. As of today there is no global governance on the model of a global government, which can override both current international law and the international framework of sovereign and independent nation States that compete with one another in various realms, i.e. economic growth, political influence, shaping of cultural values, etc.  Between the past when there was no standing global institution to mitigate harm to humanity and the future where there is yet to be a global government that transcends the system of nation States, the United Nations was born.  So what does the birth of the United Nations signify?  How is the birth of the United Nations itself an ethical matter?  To answer that question we must turn to the actual language of the United Nations itself and how it envisions its own ethical framework.

The Charter of the United Nations is a densely packed paragraph that has been subject to academic interpretation since it was first announced.  It is a forceful document with resplendent hopes and aspirations.[1]  The Preamble speaks of affirming human rights, ensuring international peace and security, improving the economic welfare of human kind, limiting the use of military force only to when it is absolutely necessary, and cultivating conditions for justice, mutual respect, tolerance of diversity from which obligations to treaties can arise and be enshrined in international law.[2] 

At a practical level many organizations want to know how to mainstream ethical principles and values into their organizational practices while measuring the success of their organization’s goals directly back to the ethical values that inform each worker’s role and output.  The United Nations as a multilateral organization is no different.  Its mission is to be the ethical conscience of the world.  But the logical question is how the Organization itself, its organizational structure, institutions, practices and people—international civil servants—are being held accountable to certain ethical values and principles?  In other words, what is the ethical nature of the framework of the United Nations, particularly since the Organization is that entity in the world trying to realize international justice and propagate global ethical values in the form of human rights?  What is the ethics of the UN as global ethical body?

This is where the United Nations Ethics Office enters the discussion.  The Office was created in 2005.  The purpose of this work is to analyze the Ethics Office, its role within the United Nations, its service to United Nations staff, and hence to the world.  The Ethics Office is a good place to start when considering the ethics of the Organization itself beginning with its Charter.  We can read from one of the central guidebooks of the Ethics Office, namely Putting Ethics to Work: A Guide for UN Staff (2012), about the ethical framework of the United Nations.  On the Charter, the United Nations Ethics Office states:

The Charter sets out the purposes and principles of the Organization.  Under our Charter, UN staff are appointed on the basis of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity.  The concept of integrity embraces all aspects of behavior of an international civil servant, including qualities such as honesty, truthfulness, impartiality, and incorruptibility.  As UN staff, we are expected to exhibit and adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct.[3]

What strikes us immediately in this first chapter of the guidebook and the first paragraph about the Charter is the language used to discuss what the essential qualities of the staff must be.  It does not read like any other organization or institution whether public or private.  What the United Nations staff are immersed in is essentially a self-reflective view about being an ethical being.  Integrity lies at the core of this being and the associated behaviours have “qualities such as honesty, truthfulness, impartiality, and incorruptibility.”[4] 

A legitimate question is how an organization proclaims its work to be the “ethical conscience of the world” if it does not perfect the ethical core of its own people who work for the organization is a legitimate question.  The entire gamut that spans the United Nations system’s activities, which includes its organs, programs, funds, commissions, departments and specialized agencies, is about the propagation of ethics.  The work of the Organization is to bring ethics into a world where obviously law or the market is not enough to secure justice.  Integrity and the qualities of ‘honesty, truthfulness, impartiality and incorruptibility’ go into make the United Nations staff member a standard bearer of ethical conduct.  The question is what happens when an attempt to realize these qualities enters the messy world of reality where these qualities may not be as strong as they could be or may be non-existent at all?  What do United Nations staff members do in the field when it comes to deciding on what is right and what is wrong when things get messy or complex?  The United Nations Ethics Office does not try to answer those questions but provide resources so that a collective process is secured as one tries to discern their situation and decide on an appropriate course of action.

Before the United Nations can engage in any of its activities, namely peacekeeping, declaring treaties, attempting to create binding agreements and many of the other activities associated with the Charter, the Organization is engaged in the world’s only institutional example of trying to achieve moral perfection in its people.  The United Nations international civil servants are fundamentally works of ethics-in-action, and hence the framework of the Organization is ethical. 

Every United Nations employee knows that they are the real embodiment of a living ideal: they incarnate the principles of the Charter itself, which in turn demands that integrity be integral and not peripheral to who one is and the qualities of ‘honesty, truthfulness, impartiality and incorruptibility’ be actualized in all their actions.  These qualities that constitute the standard of ethical conduct have an orthodox ring to them.  One imagines that they are in accordance with Simmons’s framework-- universal, imprescriptible, inalienable, natural, cannot be forfeited or traded away, and have an independent moral existence that does not require social or legal recognition.[5] The irreducible nature of the standard of ethical conduct means that the standard cannot be substituted by another, they cannot be prescribed in some cases and not others, their universality transcends any context or point on the globe, and their naturalness exceeds context-specific interpretations by social groups and legal frameworks.  So how does one cultivate such integrity and its qualities in the staff of the UN?   What institutional frameworks does the Organization possess to hold its people accountable as global citizens spreading the values of human rights to people all over the world?  To this we must turn to the idea of a global citizen.

The United Nations has Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service.  One can say that among the many nuances to its definition civility is an attempt to create a cooperative atmosphere in which rationality, respect, tolerance and peaceful engagements can be obtained.  The Guidebook speaks about the Standards of Conduct:

The International Civil Service Commission promotes the Standards of Conduct that apply to staff of all United Nations system organizations.  The Standards of Conduct describe some of the obligations which distinguish employment with the UN.  International civil servants have a special calling to serve our universal ideals of peace, respect for fundamental rights, and international cooperation.[6]

This is a very important passage in the initial moments of the United Nations Ethics Office guidebook.  We have to dissect what is meant by ‘distinguishable obligations’ of United Nations employees and the notion of a ‘special calling.’ What is required to do the work of serving the ‘universal ideals of peace, respecting foundational rights and international cooperation’ is a clear understanding of standards of conduct.  The Ethics Office lives this everyday reality to make sure these standards are met in the field and that such understanding of ethical conduct is the glue that keeps the entire organization, namely the United Nations system, together.  It is precisely the everyday quality of being ethical that distinguishes the type of work; ethical orientations are not unconscious or incidental, they must be practiced in every aspect of work. 

The United Nations to recall is history’s first example of a concrete global institution trying to achieve an ideal for humanity.  The very presence of the United Nations through nation-states as members of the General Assembly are the primary stakeholders and agents to which all other programs and funds must respond.  The Organization is the world’s first global ethical body.  Peace, rights and cooperation are cosmopolitan goals, and the cosmopolitan mindset of a global citizen would mean nothing if there was no public recognition by the institution of what is expected of its employees.  The Ethics Office helps mediate that public recognition between the principles and codes of the institution and the United Nations international civil servant in the field who often times need assistance to decide on ethical matters in alignment with certain institutional principles.


[1] See the Preamble to the Charter-

[2] Ibid.

[3] United Nations Ethics Office, Putting Ethics to Work: A Guide for UN Staff (New York: United Nations Ethics Office and the United Nations Office of Human Resources Management, 2012), p. 3.

[4] Putting Ethics to Work, p. 3.

[5] A. John Simmons, “Human Rights and World Citizenship” in Justification and Legitimacy: Essays on Rights and Obligations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 185.

[6] Putting Ethics to Work, p. 3.