I began my article, Ethics of International Civil Service: A Reflection on How the Care of UN Staff Impacts their Ability to Fulfill Their Role in "Harmonizing" the World, when I was asked to join an informal working group based out of the U.N. Secretariat. The resultant article explores the extent to which the United Nations must “consider and provide for the mental and emotional well-being of its staff members, particularly those working in the field under extreme stress,” so that these international civil servants can carry out their work to facilitate world harmony.
► The article first discusses the nature and history of the concept of international civil servants, shaped primarily by Cold War mentalities and by the extraordinary leadership of Dag Hammarskjöld, who served as U.N. Secretary-General from 1953 to 1961.
► The second part of the article discusses the composition and goals of U.N. staff today, touching upon staff members’ roles in the protection of human rights in various settings and the struggles with geographic, cultural diversity and gender diversity. A large focus of this section addresses the obstacles to women’s participation in the United Nations and the U.N.’s efforts, only moderately successful, to boost women's participation.
► Part III of the article explores the kinds of ethical issues that arise from the conditions under which international civil service is carried out – conditions that can be very hard on civil servants’ mental and physical health. Staff members who are engaged in field work in a conflict or post-conflict setting, for example, work with traumatized and vulnerable people, who may be victims as well as perpetrators of mass atrocities. Security may be minimal, and daily life may well be filled with “a palpable air of discontent, deep-seated mistrust, hatred, malaise, anger and sadness.” In this challenging setting, staff members are expected to “exercise good judgment with the large discretion granted to them in an environment in which the work is fast-paced and responsive and where the field officer risks becoming accustomed to acting in reactive mode, to perpetually putting out fires.” In this section, I examine the extent to which staff members have access to the tools or resources that would help them thoughtfully choose an ethical course of action under difficult conditions. I draw in part from my own field experience to show that staff members are often not sufficiently prepared to cope with the situations that they will encounter, and do not always make the best choices (to put it mildly) as to how to conduct themselves properly. These factors result in problems like corruption and sexual harassment, along with even more serious problems, such as engaging in the trafficking of human beings and the violent deaths of the very civilians whom U.N. peacekeepers are charged with protecting.
► Finally, the last two parts of the article offer some thoughts on the kind of care and training that are needed to protect the emotional, physical, and mental well-being of U.N. staff members and thus help them to act in an ethical and competent manner in stressful situations.
I conclude with the observation that if the United Nations does not provide a properly protective and caring environment for its staff members, then it cannot “realistically hope to improve the possibility of preventing either burnout, trauma, or ethical misdealings by its staff members under stress.”