The Ethics Function in the UN System

By Malika Aït-Mohamed Parent, 20 July 2020


Ethics – A key target during the on-going 2020 decade

In a recent research on the role of compliance in the Fight against Corruption in Aid[1], I observed that ‘Integrity’ was the leitmotiv of the 90s, as compared to ‘Accountability’ in the 2000s and ‘Transparency’ in the 2010s (with an ‘Hyper-transparency’ phenomenon at the end of the 2010 decade). One can anticipate that the driving concept for the on-going decade (the 2020s) will be ‘Compliance’ with a focus on ‘Ethics’.

Ethics issues surely cover multiple facets and are performed through multiple kinds of portfolio in different organisations. In the United Nation system, it is a growing portfolio, ensuring that all staff are fully aligned on a set of mission, vision and values.

The Ethics Office in the UN system

One can find in the UN Secretary General Bulletin, dated of 30 December 2005, the notification of the establishment and the terms of references of the Ethics Office[2] in reference to the UN General Assembly Decision 60/248[3].


“The objective of the Ethics Office is to assist the Secretary-General in ensuring that all staff members observe and perform their functions consistent with the highest standards of integrity required by the Charter of the United Nations through fostering a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability” (see , UN SG Bulletin 30 December 2005, art 1.2., ToR, 30.12.2020).

The UN Ethics Office currently works on five mandate areas: (1) confidential ethics advice, (2) protection against retaliation, (3) financial disclosure, (4) ethics training and outreach, and (5) policy coordination and coherence of ethical standards[4]

Reading the UN System organizations’ annual reports of their respective Ethics Officer will give you some flavour of ethical dilemmas and ethical solutions.

Focus on the Leadership dialogue

As part of the ‘training and outreach’ strategic objective, the UN Ethics Office, supports the Leadership Dialogue. Indeed, since 2013, every year, the UN secretariat managers are expected to organize a conversation with their direct reports about ethical challenges they face in their day-to-day work. These ‘direct reports’ are expected to do the same with their own direct reports until every single staff has been consulted.

A ‘Leadership Guide’ is made available to facilitate/stimulate the consultation process. 2020 focus is on ‘Acknowledging Dignity through Civility’[5].

Looking at the archives of the Leadership Dialogue since 2013, one can appreciate the perimeter covered by these strategic consultations (2019 Leadership dialogue focused on ‘Conflict of interest’, 2018 on ‘Speaking-up and Whistleblowing’, 2016 on ‘Fraud’…).


What next?

Ethics is a personal and collective journey aligning, or not, to others and/or institutional standards. All of us have to reflect, revisit a set of values, create and contribute to the co-creation of new norms and standards, share and challenge if necessary.

Time has come for you to revisit and re-engineer your views on Ethics and Ethical matters including Ethical leadership. Why not by registering to the Online course on Ethical leadership, proposed by the Arete Academy Geneva https://areteacademy.teachable.com/courses

About the author:

Malika Aït-Mohamed Parent is member of the Arete Academy Geneva, Advisory Board.

Specialized in the fight against corruption in the aid sector, she is an International speaker, Investigator and ISO 37001 Auditor. She has been elected Vice-Chair of the UNHCR ‘Independent Audit and Oversight Committee’, member of the ILO ‘Independent Oversight Advisory Committee’ and FAO ‘Oversight Advisory Committee. She is also, Frequent Visiting Faculty at the International Anti-Corruption Academy (Austria), Faculty Member of the Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Centre, Geneva, and Chair of the ICRC -IFRC Joint Statutes Commission.

[1] https://www.iaca.int/media/attachments/2020/01/09/research_paper_09_malika_ait_mohamed_parent_final_with_covers.pdf [2] https://undocs.org/ST/SGB/2005/22 [3] https://undocs.org/A/RES/60/248 [4] https://www.un.org/en/ethics/#:~:text=The%20UN%20Ethics%20Office%20promotes,and%20respect%20for%20human%20rights. [5] https://www.un.org/en/ethics/assets/pdfs/Leaders%20Guide%202020.pdf

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