What Happened to International Civil Service?


James O.C. Jonah, former undersecretary general, finance minister and permanent representative of Sierra Leone, was the featured speaker at a luncheon hosted by the Association of Former International Civil Service (AFICS). Following are highlights of his remarks.

I am now writing my memoirs and the focus is to evaluate the role of the international civil servant in conflict resolution. I feel compelled to do it because I really believe that these are troubling times for the international civil service. You may recall that after I went back to my country in 1994, and returned to the UN as my country's permanent representative in 1996, I was surprised at the change that had occurred in just two years. I was particularly incensed at the growth of what were called "loan officers" - very large numbers of staff who were paid by their governments and had the mantle of the United Nations in the Secretariat.

I took up the challenge and made a speech on 31 October 1996 in the Fifth Committee on the subject. Of course, the people who heard that speech asserted, as reflected in The New York Times, and I think the Delegates' World Bulletin, "this man has blown it-he can never become Secretary-General of the UN." Of course, I did say in that speech that I was not interested in becoming Secretary-General. The reason I was so incensed was because I saw, and I said in that speech, that efforts had been made to use financial constraints to subvert the principles and goals of the international civil service.

Dag Hammarskjold was correct when, in his last major public speech, at Oxford University in May 1961, he tackled this issue. You may recall that a major attack had been made by Premier Khrushchev on the international civil service symbolized by the Secretary-General, by introducing the principle of the troika. Khrushchev really made a major attack on the principle of the international civil service by saying, "You can never have a neutral man," and that therefore you cannot have a neutral independent Secretariat. Hammarskjold correctly said, "You cannot have a neutral man," (because we all have flesh and blood) "but you can have an impartial man," which is the essence of the international civic service. He then gave a warning that if we allow this visionary concept to die, this would be a Munich of international cooperation as conceived in the UN Charter. In my view, it is still true today.

The service is unique because you are not working in a national civil service. You are working in an environment where you have different nationalities, you have people with different values and you have to learn to work with all these people for a common goal. It is those who work in the secretariats of the organizations, programmes, and agencies of the UN family who are able to translate the hopes and aspirations of the peoples of the world on whose behalf the charter was drafted and approved.

What are the ways you can ensure that this visionary concept is maintained? One important way is how the UN makes its contractual arrangements. That is why the career service is so essential to the viability of the international civil serviceŠWhy is it important? Because it gives you a sense of independence. You will not be afraid-but again this independence is what most governments don't like; they call it "dead wood." They would like very much to have a situation where people who may say things out of turn, or who may not do what they want them to do, can be easily removed. But your permanent contract ensures that they cannot do that.

Now, there are several points in debate. Is it essential for a secretariat to have a full career service? Don't you have changes taking place all the time in science and technology? Don't you need new blood? Of course you do. And it was to accommodate this that Hammarskjold came to the conclusion that you can have 75 percent of the staff as career permanent and 25 percent short term.

Why this concern now? The drift is going too far away from the career service-too many appointments are short term and there is a risk of institutional knowledge and memory being lost in the secretariat. Even as a young man, Dr. Ralph Bunche and others would teach mer about things they hoped I could take on when they were gone.

But what is happening now? I don't know whether you all are aware of this. They are changing the contractual arrangements of staff. Now you cannot have permanent contracts. There has been a total or partial freeze on permanent appointments. And the reason they are doing that is very subtle. It began in UNDP; they call it "appointments of limited duration." They tried it in UNDP and it worked. What it means si that at the end of the day you could be dismissed at any time. That is one of the essences of this new contractual relationship and it has mushroomed. And as it has mushroomed, it hobbles your independence. It is going to be ruinous.

I believe that you can make a compromise. I accept that you cannot have a rigid percentage, 75 percent for career service, but you may have to have a career core. There are so many areas in the Un where perhaps you need people to move in and out, but I believe the bulk of the service has to be career. I know that I could never have survived doing what I did in places like the Middle East and others without the knowledge that I had a career service.

But we are getting into a position now where, and I see this amongst staff, they are really afraid to speak. They whisper, because they are afraid about what the repercussion will be down the road. If you don't have people in the secretariat who have this historical knowledge and career assurance, you are bound to have difficulties. There is value in it and we should be very alert to this gradual attempt to do away with the international civil service. I do believe-this will be my conclusion-that the international civil service is not a luxury; it is not a nuisance, it's a necessity.