What the ICSC Standards of Conduct mean for you
How these Standards aim to protect the organizations and their staff
1 May 2023

The Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) were first issued by the International Civil Service Advisory Board in 1954. In 1981, the ICSC was requested by the ILO to reissue the Standards to remind all concerned the essential elements of conduct and behavior expected of international civil servants. Based on a review by the Administrative Committee on Coordination at the request of the ICSC, the Standards were reissued in 1986 with a new preface. The Standards were subsequently revised in 2001 and again in 2012 by the ICSC with the participation of the organizations and staff representatives of the common system organizations. All staff members are encouraged to read and make themselves familiar with the ICSC Standards of Conduct.

The ICSC Standards of Conduct are unique in that they refer to both the allegiance of staff members to their organizations, and the reciprocal duty of member states to refrain from violating the independence of the international civil service. Indeed, the independence and impartiality of the international civil service are sacrosanct and underpin its very identity. International civil servants should be constantly aware that, through their allegiance to the Charter and the corresponding instruments of each organization, member States and their representatives are committed to respect their independent status. Additionally, a set of values including integrity, humility, discretion, and a genuine concern and care for the wellbeing of others are defining characteristics of the ICSC Standards of Conduct. The dedication to these values can be seen day in and day out in the tireless work of the staff of the organizations of the United Nations common system across the world, often under the most difficult circumstances.

The Standards seek to guide and inspire the international civil service and to inform and provide explanations. As stated in the Standards, the organizations have an obligation to implement the Standards through their policy frameworks, including rules, regulations and other administrative instruments. While the Standards have largely stood the test of time, the revisions since 1954 have sought to update them to reflect the contemporary issues faced by the organizations and staff, to make them simpler, more concise and more clear. The Standards cover a wide range of issues including: guiding principles, working relations, harassment and abuse of authority, conflicts of interest, disclosure of information and use of the resources of the organizations, post-employment restrictions, relations with member States, legislative bodies and the public and the media.

As such, over the years the Standards have been revised, inter alia, to recognize the interactions of the organizations with external stakeholders, including the private sector; increasing decentralization and greater responsibilities to lower-level management; a move away from rules-based to values-based systems; and the pervasiveness of technology. With the growing importance of the ethics function in the organizations and global events that have unfolded over the last few years, there is a need to once again review the ICSC Standards of Conduct in order to ensure that it continues to be a guiding light for the organizations and staff.

The Commission has therefore established a working group to review the ICSC standards of conduct, including Commission members and representatives of the organizations and staff. This is an opportune moment to consider the issues that the organizations and staff have faced in the context of global events over the last few years and which they may face, moving forward. The social movements on racism and discrimination, women’s rights and sexual harassment, as well as political and economic issues have led to deep introspection on the precise role of the international civil service – in shaping the dialogue on these issues, both within the organizations and in society at large. Unfortunately, issues of racism, sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment, as well as abuse of authority and other misconduct when they take place, shine a negative light on the organizations and undermine the delivery of their important mandates. While the diversity of the organizations is unparalleled, there has been a recognition that more needs to be done to address some systemic issues within the organizations themselves. These issues will be included in the ongoing review.

In recent years, questions have also been raised as to the extent that staff members may get involved in their personal capacity, on issues that relate to global human rights issues in particular – more so when staff feel passionate about those issues. Relatedly, the use of social media as a form of communication, especially amongst the younger generation (which tends to adopt technological changes more rapidly), has also been raised as an issue that requires further consideration and greater clarity as to the allowable limits. Indeed, unlike in the past when print media was the primary means of conveying ideas, a single tweet, post or comment online can now instantly be seen by thousands of people with access to the internet. Given such reach, staff may sometimes find themselves at risk, even unknowingly, when using such media as a means to communicate and/or reflect on the work of the organizations. It is important to reiterate that the privileges and immunities enjoyed by staff are functional in nature and limited solely to their official capacity.

Other issues to be included in the review relate, inter alia, to the independence and impartiality of the international civil service and interactions with member states and external stakeholders. These include considerations related to the responsibilities of seconded staff; integrity of recruitment processes; engagement in external activities by staff, whether they are paid or unpaid; issues relating to telecommuting and lessons from COVID; the responsibilities of staff upon separation from the organizations; the pervasiveness of technology, including advances in artificial intelligence; data privacy considerations; and environmental and sustainability considerations.

While the mandate of the Commission in accordance with its statute relates to staff, the wider applicability of the ICSC Standards of Conduct, to other personnel types has been raised. While the leverage of the organizations on other types of personnel may differ, it is not difficult to see that some of the issues that the working group will be considering in the course of its work may also be applicable, either in whole or in part, to other personnel types. How best this may be reflected would need to be discussed. Finally, it will be important to build awareness of the revised ICSC Standards of Conduct amongst all stakeholders, including through training programs and other ongoing communications.

The primary importance of the ICSC Standards lies in inspiring staff, preventing ethical issues before they take place and shaping a common UN culture of integrity- rather than being punitive. As the old adage goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Of course, where breaches of the Standards do take place, it will be important that the organizations’ policies fairly address these through clear channels.

In adhering to the Standards, the issue of perception is just as important as reality. If an action could be perceived as going against the intent of the ICSC Standards of Conduct, then it is better to avoid that action in the first instance. In other words, while being guided by the Standards, we must strive to hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards and to the ideals of the United Nations. 

* Larbi Djacta is Chairman of the International Civil Service Commission
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