The John W. Holmes Lecture: Reinvigorating the International Civil Service

By Weiss, Thomas G. | Global Governance, January-March 2010 | Go to article overview

The John W. Holmes Lecture: Reinvigorating the International Civil Service


Weiss, Thomas G., Global Governance


"PEOPLE MATTER" IS A CENTRAL CONCLUSION FROM THE UNITED NATIONS Intellectual History Project and the penultimate sentence of the first of seventeen published volumes. (1) Yet critical contributions by individuals who work at the world organization are usually overlooked or downplayed by analysts who stress the politics of 192 member states and the supposedly ironclad constraints placed by them on international secretariats. However, I have devoted considerable professional energy to international administration, both as an analyst and as a civil servant. (2) My proposition is straightforward: the United Nations should rediscover the idealistic roots of the international civil service, make room for creative idea-mongers, and mark out career development paths for a twenty-first century secretariat with greater turnover and younger and more mobile staff. This essay explores the origins of the concept, problems, the logic of reform, and specific improvements. Examples come from the UN's three main areas of activity--peace and security, human rights, and sustainable development. (3)

Overwhelming Bureaucracy and Underwhelming Leadership: The "Second UN"

If the conceptual UN is unitary, the real organization consists of three linked pieces. The "Second UN" consists of heads of secretariats and staff members who are paid from assessed and voluntary budgets. Inis Claude long ago distinguished it from the arena for state decisionmaking, the "First UN" of member states. The "Third UN" of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), experts, commissions, and academics is a more recent addition to analytical perspectives that first appeared in these pages. (4)

The possibility of independently recruited professionals with allegiance to the welfare of the planet, not to their home countries, remains a lofty but contested objective. During World War II, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sponsored conferences to learn from the "great experiment" of the League of Nations (5). One essential item of its legacy, the international civil service, was purposefully included as UN Charter Article 101, calling for "securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and integrity." (6)

The Second UN's most visible champion was Dag Hammarskjold, whose speech at Oxford in May 1961, shortly before his calamitous death, spelled out the importance of an autonomous and first-rate staff. He asserted that any erosion or abandonment of "the international civil service ... might, if accepted by the Member nations, well prove to be the Munich of international cooperation." (7) His clarion call did not ignore the reality that the international civil service exists to carry out decisions by member states. But Hammarskjold fervently believed that UN officials could and should pledge allegiance to a larger collective good symbolized by the organization's light-blue-covered laissez-passer rather than the narrowly perceived national interests of the countries that issue national passports in different colors.

Setting aside senior UN positions for officials approved by their home countries belies that integrity. Governments seek to ensure that their interests are defended inside secretariats, and many have even relied on officials for intelligence. From the outset, for example, the Security Council's five permanent members have reserved the right to "nominate" (essentially select) nationals to fill the key posts in the secretary-general's cabinet. The influx in the 1950s and 1960s of former colonies as new member states led them to clamor for "their" quota or fair share of the patronage opportunities, following the bad example set by major powers and other member states. The result was downplaying competence and exaggerating national origins as the main criterion for recruitment and promotion. Over the years, efforts to improve gender balance have resulted in other types of claims, as has the age profile of secretariats. …

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