Canadian attorney Robert Benson says that when he arrived at the U.N. in May 2007 he assumed that his New York-based Ethics Office had jurisdiction over the entire organization. But he soon learned it only oversaw the U.N. Secretariat - the U.N.'s main administrative body. Assorted agencies and funds opted to set up their own ethics bureaus.
"I wasn't a student of the United Nations," said Mr. Benson in an interview. "Would it be better to have one office? Absolutely."
The UN says it has no immediate plans to consolidate the various ethics bureaus, but it is finalizing one set of ethical standards to be followed by all its agencies...
The UN... set up Mr. Benson's office to foster "a culture of ethics, transparency and accountability."
The link between administrative law and professional ethics is made absolutely clear in the final sentence. One key question that arises here, however, is the extent to which the unified "ethical standards" that the Ethics Office is elaborating are to have legal force. While it is unlikely that they will themselves be formally binding (as the use of "standards" terminology suggests), it does seem likely that they will be intended to aid interpretation of terms such as "misconduct" in the course of legal proceedings (before, for example, the new UN Disputes and/or Appeals Tribunals). As with so many international standards, then, it would be entirely misleading to assume that because they are formally non-binding they are thus deprived of all legal force or significance.
The Ethics Office thus seems to be one of those hybrid bodies that are increasingly common within global administration: not only is it to function as an administrative body in its own right (through, e.g., the development of standards and other administrative activities) but also as an accountability mechanism, through its general oversight role over the actions of UN officials, and of those of the disparate Ethics Committees. The Terms of Reference of the Ethics Office make this dual function clear:
3.1 The main responsibilities of the Ethics Office are as follows:
- Administering the Organization’s financial disclosure programme;
- Undertaking the responsibilities assigned to it under the Organization’s policy for the protection of staff against retaliation for reporting misconduct and for cooperating with duly authorized audits or investigations;
- Providing confidential advice and guidance to staff on ethical issues (e.g., conflict of interest), including administering an ethics helpline;
- Developing standards, training and education on ethics issues, in coordination with the Office of Human Resources Management and other offices as appropriate, including ensuring annual ethics training for all staff;
- Such other functions as the Secretary-General considers appropriate for the Office.
** Update ** Pursuant to a comment below by Carlos Ivan Fuentes, pointing out the extent to which the recent changes in the UN system follow the recommendations of the “Report of the Redesign Panel on the United Nations system of administration of justice”, here is a link to the Report itself, and here, courtesy again of the Center for UN Reform Education website, is a summary.