The UN is a values-based system in need of ethical principles © Freepik

The rise and evolution of ethics offices within the United Nations
The shift to a values-based system is the key to fostering a culture based on ethical principles
1 Apr 2024

Origins and mandate

The first ethics office within the UN system was established in 2006, as a direct response to a call for action by the UN General Assembly following the 2005 World Summit. This highlighted the need to establish an independent preventive body whose role would be to foster and promote a culture of integrity within the UN system, to secure the highest standards of integrity of staff members in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.

While the core function of ethics offices has been the promotion of a culture of integrity, another key role consists in providing guidance and confidential advice on ethics-related concerns, in order to reflect the values, principles and standards of conduct of the international civil service. Other initiatives have focused on ethical leadership training, targeted awareness campaigns, and the development of policies, guidelines and best practices. Due to the widespread increase in the use of social media and related digital platforms, new challenges and opportunities have been created for ethics offices, requiring adaptation to this ever-evolving world. Some offices were required to adapt their approaches in order to address issues such as harassment, bullying and discrimination. These issues are examples of prohibited behaviour which can have direct implications for organizations and their staff.

From compliance to a values-based approach

While initially focused on compliance, a major shift has been noticed in the way ethics programs are run within the UN system. The major shift has been from a compliance-based approach towards a values-based system, underscoring the vital importance of ethical principles and moral values in decision-making and conduct. Amongst those ethics offices that have fully embraced this strategic vision is the UNESCO Ethics Office, which has emerged as a major advocate for a values-based approach to ethics.

As the world we live in today is characterized by increasingly complex challenges and uncertainties, this approach considers the need to focus more than ever on strong ethical frameworks that encompass common values and provide guidance. It is during times of deep crisis that the values the UN has been built on, are being tested. Rules and regulations alone cannot ensure the respect of the highest standards of conduct or cover every possible scenario. Compliance places emphasis on what one has the right to do. By way of contrast, ethics dictate the moral choices that organizations and individuals alike may make. It reflects a commitment to moral thought and action in all aspects of how an organization is governed and run. Ethics are the ‘oughts’ and ‘shoulds’ of how organizations relate to their stakeholders rather than the ‘musts.’ When it comes to values, a key component is the understanding that the responsibility for ethical behavior is something that needs to be embraced by all, individually and collectively, at every level of an organization, with additional responsibilities being placed on managers to lead by example and set the ‘tone at the top.’

Over the past few years, the UNESCO Ethics Office has developed a comprehensive framework for promoting ethical conduct based on the organization’s core values of integrity, professionalism, and respect for diversity, all under a broader commitment to the organization which serves as the driving force behind everyone’s dedication to upholding its mission and mandate. By fully engaging all stakeholders of the organization, a key aspect has been the focus on recognizing the importance of making ethics ‘everyone’s business,’ which through extensive training, outreach and projects based on a participatory process, has led to significant strengthening of a culture of ethics that strives to ensure that the voices of all stakeholders are heard and respected.

Challenges and the way forward

Despite their best efforts, ethics offices may face challenges in their quest towards fostering an organizational culture where ethics is placed at the very core of individual and institutional action. The success of ethics offices may be hindered by a lack of adequate human or financial resources, low buy-in from key internal stakeholders or other obstacles within and outside of organizations. 

The success of ethics offices will therefore ultimately depend on the collective commitment of member states, senior leadership, staff members, and other stakeholders to uphold the highest standards of integrity and empower ethics offices in the fulfillment of their essential mandate.

From their origins as a response to specific scandals affecting the credibility and reputation of the UN, to their current role in addressing evolving complex ethical challenges, ethics offices have truly become vital pillars in promoting a culture of ethics and integrity within the UN system. As such, they will continue to play a key role in ensuring ethics remains a beacon of integrity for the UN as it continues its noble mission and mandate. 

* Emanuele Dominici is the Ethics Advisor a.i. at UNESCO.
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