Providing the foundations for commitment to the Charter of the United Nations © Freepik

The meaning of ethics at the UN
Ethics in practice lie at the core of the UN’s ability to fulfill its global mandate
1 Apr 2024

The United Nations stands as a beacon of international cooperation, aiming to foster peace, human rights, equality, and sustainable development across the globe. At the core of its operations lies a commitment to high ethical standards that guide its decision-making, policies, and practices. At the heart of the UN’s effectiveness is the commitment of its diverse staff, from various nations and cultures. In maintaining the integrity and credibility of its mission, the UN places a strong emphasis on ethics.

UN staff members are called upon by the Charter of the United Nations to uphold the highest levels of efficiency, competence, and integrity. This commitment is reflected in the Declaration of Office we all took when we began our UN careers.


I solemnly declare and promise to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as an international civil servant of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other source external to the Organization. I also solemnly declare and promise to respect the obligations incumbent upon me as set out in the Staff Regulations and Rules.

Central to the effectiveness of the UN’s mission is the independence and impartiality of its staff, who serve as international civil servants.

In part, independence means not accepting or receiving instructions from any external authority and being responsible only to the organization (Article 100).

Impartiality, in the context of the UN, refers to the commitment of its staff to act objectively, without bias or favoritism, and in accordance with the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. As international civil servants, UN staff members should share the vision of their organization. It is loyalty to this vision that ensures the integrity and international outlook of international civil servants; a shared vision guarantees that they will place the interests of their organization above their own and use its resources in a responsible manner.

Ethics form the moral compass that guides the actions and decisions of UN staff. As a global organization, the UN brings together people from diverse backgrounds, each contributing to the collective goal of creating a better world. In this context, ethical behavior is paramount for fostering trust, collaboration, and a shared commitment to the UN’s principles.

The UN Ethics Office helps staff members perform their functions in a manner that is consistent with the highest standards of integrity and promotes an ethical organizational culture, based on the organization’s values and principles of integrity, accountability, transparency and mutual respect. The UN Ethics Office serves the global Secretariat, including staff located in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, regional commissions, peacekeeping operations, special political missions and other designated offices.

But what does all that mean in practice?

The UN Ethics Office is independent, impartial, confidential, and advisory in nature. The mandate of the office includes providing confidential ethics advice, outreach and training, policy support and coherence, administering the financial disclosure program, and administering the organization’s policy on protection against retaliation for reporting misconduct and for cooperating with duly authorized audits or investigations.

Ethics advice and guidance

By far the greatest point of contact from staff with the UN Ethics Office is to request confidential ethics advice. The Ethics Office serves as a confidential resource for staff seeking guidance on ethical issues.

The advice provided to staff members covers issues relating to UN standards of conduct and how to identify, mitigate and manage conflict of interest risks including: gifts, honors, awards, personal financial interests, post-employment restrictions, corporate compliance standards in vendor management and due diligence etc.

Situations such as conflicts of interest, do not always necessarily imply corruption, wrongdoing, or inappropriate activities. However, if they are not identified, disclosed, and managed appropriately, such situations can compromise (or appear to compromise) a staff member’s integrity as well as the integrity of the organization and its business operations, which may be considered misconduct.

In short, the Ethics Office can act as a preventive mechanism where staff can come to seek guidance and advice to potentially prevent taking actions or taking part in activities that could compromise a staff member’s independence or impartiality.

Ethics training and outreach

The UN Ethics Office conducts outreach, training and education to fulfil the mandate to identify and address ethics-related concerns, thereby strengthening a shared ethical culture. Training and outreach work includes mandatory online courses, the annual Leadership Dialogue, iSeek broadcasts, publications, mission visits, workshops, and customized briefings in cooperation with other UN offices.

United Nations Financial Disclosure Programme

The UN Ethics Office administers the UN Financial Disclosure Programme (UNFDP), designed to identify, resolve and mitigate conflict of interest risks arising from staff members’ personal interests (such as assets, investments and liabilities) and outside affiliations. Under the UNFDP, participants, designated by their heads of entities based on their functions, are required to complete a confidential annual disclosure statement or declaration in respect of themselves, their spouses and dependent children.

The UNFDP serves as an effective tool and represents a proactive approach to help staff members identify and mitigate potential conflict of interest risks and avoid circumstances that can potentially result in reputational harm to the organization or misconduct.

Protection against retaliation

UN staff members have a duty to report any violation of the organisation’s rules and regulations and to cooperate with authorized audits and investigations. The Ethics Office administers the organization’s policy on protection against retaliation, which protects staff members, interns and volunteers as well as consultants and contractors from retaliation as a consequence of reporting misconduct or cooperating with an authorized investigation or audit.

The policy is designed to encourage the reporting, in good faith, of suspected wrongdoing and cooperating with sanctioned audits and investigations without the fear of retaliation.

Pursuant to the policy, the UN Ethics Office conducts preliminary reviews of retaliation complaints to determine whether an individual has engaged in a protected activity and, if so, whether the protected activity was a contributing factor in causing the alleged retaliation. If the Ethics Office determines that a prima facie case of retaliation has been established, the matter is referred to the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) for investigation. Pending the completion of the investigation, the Ethics Office may recommend interim protection measures to protect the complainant. Upon completion of the investigation, the Ethics Office may recommend that further measures be taken, including the referral of the retaliator for possible disciplinary measures.


The UN Ethics Office plays a vital role in assisting the Secretary-General to ensure that staff of the organization adhere to and are upholding the highest standards of ethics and integrity. Through policies, training, and confidential support mechanisms, the UN Ethics Office contributes to creating an organizational culture in which integrity, respect, and accountability are paramount. As the UN continues to address complex global challenges, the commitment to ethics remains a cornerstone, ensuring that the organization remains a trusted force for positive change on the international stage. 

* Rick Sanchez is Head of the Protection Against Retaliation, Outreach, Training and Due Diligence Unit of the UN Ethics Office at UNHQ, New York.
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