Dag Hammarskjöld– Ethics in International Cooperation

Marco Toscano-Rivalta*

an address to the World Goodwill Seminar, UN Headquarters, Geneva. 28 October, 2016



It is a great pleasure to be here at the Palais des Nations to share with you some personal reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld and his contribution to ethics in:

  • international cooperation,
  • the role of the United Nations, and
  • international civil service.

It seems to me a very interesting coincidence for a number of reasons:

  • We have a new Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guterres,
  • The first UN decade on development, launched on 25 September 1961 and the precursor of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and the SDGs, is connected to his legacy;
  • The upcoming deliberations by the General Assembly on the question of Investigation into the death of Dag Hammarskjöld and colleagues;
  • The revitalization of the UN Staff day, initiated by Dag Hammarskjöld in 1953, that was celebrated this week on 25 October, right after the 24th which is the UN day.


Dag Hammarskjöld and the UN in context

Dag Hammarskjöld was elected 2nd Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1953. In the night of September 17-18 of 1961, during his efforts to secure a cease-fire in the Congo crisis, he and fifteen others perished in the line of duty in a plane crash near the border between today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zambia. An accident which left open many question marks, and indeed last year the General Assembly recognized that “a further inquiry or investigation would be necessary to finally establish the facts of the matter”.

During Hammarskjöld’s leadership from 1953 to 1961, the UN membership increased from 60 to 110 states in the wake of the decolonization. Significant developments in its functioning took place, including, the establishment of the system of Member States’ permanent representations at the UN, the consolidation of the political functions of the Secretary-General and of international civil service, the creation of peacekeeping operations and of Envoys of the Secretary-General, as well the development of technical cooperation programs for countries.

These changes were made possible by the close cooperation that Hammarskjöld inspired and harnessed among some of his visionary colleagues within the UN, and outside in governments, academia, scientific institutions and civil society organizations as well as arts.

Just a month before his death, in his last Annual Report on the Work of the Organization, he asked countries to exercise a choice on which direction the UN should go, including the role of the UN Secretary-General and the political powers granted to it by the Charter; whether as pure diplomatic conference machinery or an executive instrument for peace and development. A choice that would be of significance in the relation between the organization and its Members and among the Members.

Subsequent practice seems to point to the fact that the choice was made for an executive instrument, and for the full recognition of the political powers of the Secretary-General’s function.

United Nations’ Evolving Governance

Since Hammarskjöld’s time, the world has gone through enormous changes in social, economic, cultural, political and scientific terms. These include the increase of public, private, profit and non-profit organizations competent, committed to, and active in all fields of international cooperation, and rightfully expecting to play their role in full for the betterment of humanity and the living conditions on Earth, in cooperation with the United Nations.

As a consequence, Member States are in the increasingly challenging position of being no longer the “owners” of the United Nations, but rather the “trustees” on behalf of the “peoples of the United Nations” in the attainment of the Purposes, and the practice of the Principles, enshrined in the UN Charter.

Member States are expected to ensure that the decisions and actions taken by the UN reflect the best knowledge and shared interests, enlarge the area of common ground, constitute a powerful visionary pragmatism, are just and respect of the law, and that all those who can contribute to their formulation and implementation are enabled to do so – in other words, decisions that foster a purposeful cooperation across all stakeholders and leverage on their potential.

Depending on the issues at stake, such stakeholders change and, using a mechanical engineering terminology, today we need to speak of international cooperation with a “variable geometry”.

This poses important challenges to the decision-making of the United Nations which increasingly see the participation of other stakeholders in the discussions and deliberations, while the formal final decision remains with Member States.

Such processes are more complex, at times frustrating for a sense of dilution of the real issues, loss of purpose and waste of time, while outside the world’s needs increase rapidly. Yet, these processes can also be very powerful and visionary. Participants’ thinking gets shaped bit by bit and at times they go beyond compromise and chart a new landscape, new common ground and a shared goal.

A very positive example is the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, adopted in 2015, which, while recognizing the primary responsibility of states to manage disaster risk, it states that this responsibility is “shared” with other stakeholders, such as business and civil society. This is a political recognition of the space and roles that other stakeholders can play, and therefore of their responsibility to step in and play their part in the one work. This will create many opportunities and will have important implications for accountability.

The Heart of the United Nations

The United Nations was conceived to be an agent of change, endowed with the necessary agency. Not the cause of the change, which indeed rests with the growing consciousness of humanity. Rather the United Nations is “a focal point for efforts so to guide the difficult and delicate development that this progress may be achieved in peace and become a means to reinforce peace”.

Being an agent of change implies to be a model of change, and this needs to be reflected in an ongoing adjustment of how the Organization is used, including its working methods. This is a fundamental point, which far from being purely academic, has very practical implications.

Hammarskjöld invested a lot of time in articulating, explaining, and practicing the potential of the precepts contained in the UN Charter on the role of the United Nations and the Secretariat, and how the existing rules offered a strong basis and could be interpreted to address the ever emerging new issues and serve the peoples’ needs.

A legitimate question is whether he and his colleagues at that time unveiled everything under the Charter or there is something else to pursue. Even today, Hammarskjöld is of help.

His tireless efforts in interpreting and practicing the articles concerning the role of the Secretariat, including the Secretary-General and its political power, point us to another key provision of the UN Charter which has remained until today a bit in the shade: and that is paragraph 4 of article 1.

Art 1 is about the Purposes of the United Nations. We really enter into the heart of the UN Charter, of the vision behind the establishment of the United Nations.

1.1 To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;
1.2 To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace;
1.3 To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion;

And Article 1.4 which I want to bring to your attention:

1.4 To be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends.

At a first reading, its content looks rather obvious, a “no-brainer”. Through the preparatory works of the San Francisco Conference, it emerges that this article was the subject of very limited discussions and amendments. It was adopted almost as it had been proposed. Also, many commentaries on the UN Charter devote very little space to this paragraph.

Such little attention indeed caught my eyes.

For me, this is the most mysterious and fundamental provision of the Charter. It contains a mighty understatement. It is the only provision that speaks of “being” rather than “doing”, and defines what the United Nations is, its nature. All the others are about what the United Nations has to do and how.

But trying to understand what something is, its nature, isn’t instrumental to better understand how it works, how to use it, how to unleash its its potential to the maximum extent?

Let me tell you a little bit more.

Art. 1.4 of the Charter seems to tell us that until and unless a centre for harmonizing actions of nations is created, it is not possible to effectively address the challenges identified in the preceding three paragraphs of the same article, including the securing of peace and security, respect for human rights, gender equality, friendly relations among states and peoples, and the achievement of international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character.

Art. 1.4 seems to indicate a “condicio sine qua non”, a necessary condition to achieve the intended results.

Therefore, the nurturing of such a centre seems to be a fundamental priority that deserves full focus and requires the best quality and skills of all human beings which constitute the peoples of the United Nations and intend to foster international cooperation and serve humanity.

Paragraph 4 seems to provide an interesting key to further imagine and materialize the work and functioning of the United Nations, its main organs, including the Secretariat and its chief, the Secretary-General, and thus realize new forms of international cooperation.

Psychological studies indicate that the will is essential to harmonize our internal parts and forces. It is also suggested that in a fully developed person the will is not only strong, but also wise and loving and goes beyond the interests of the person itself.

Reasoning by analogy, the United Nations through the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council, is a mechanism to leverage, catalyze and manifest the will which in itself acts as an “harmonizer” of the actions that nations are to take in the attainment of the common good. The United Nations is a catalyser of the will to good. Therefore, it is important to purposefully study how will operates, including through groups, and to this aim there is a very interesting book by Roberto Assagioli called “The Act of Will”.

In particular, a joint reading of the articles on the Secretariat (97-101) and article 1.4 suggests that the Secretariat, and chiefly the Secretary-General, is an instrument of this “harmonizing” of actions which are then carried out by others. And the actions are not only those of Governments, but of “nations”, i.e. the people and organizations living and operating in all States in support of peace, security, economic and social development, humanitarian relief, human rights, and right relations.

It is critical to reflect on and understand what this centre for harmonizing actions is and its characteristics; what it entails and requires; how it is supposed to work; and how the various stakeholders, like states’ representatives, NGOs and business are supposed to do; and how this conditions and defines the work of UN civil servants.

In other words: are the individuals that in different capacity engage and contribute to the work of the United Nations bound to do something specific in light of what Art. 1.4 says? When one contributes to the work of a something that is supposed to harmonize actions of nations for the common good, does she or he need to do something in particular, or in a particular way? How does she or he need to approach the work? How does she or he need to prepare, including on a personal level? What personal attitude?

Being part of such processes not only requires the best professional performance, but also poses a critical demand on the individual as a person in terms of open-mindedness and self-control over prejudices and biases.

It seems to me that this centre, while may be physically represented by the United Nations’ General Assembly, its councils, subsidiary bodies and offices, is definitely not limited to it. It must go beyond a room and a set of procedures for political consultations and negotiations. It is a psychic space.

And it is probably not by coincidence that Hammarskjöld wanted a Meditation Room at the New York Headquarters.

Dag Hammarskjöld’s International Civil Service Ethics

What is the role of UN civil servants in this scenario? Their contribution to the United Nations’ “act of will” and harmonizing process?

Dag Hammarskjöld throughout his 8 years in office constantly articulated and demonstrated the potentials of the United Nations’ executive nature, including the functions of the Secretary-General.

His work went a long way, but it clearly is unfinished business. More work waits ahead to continue unpack the potential of the Secretary-General function for international cooperation.

Hammarskjöld was aware that UN civil servants are instrumental to the success of international cooperation and its outcomes. He affirmed the “The essential role of an international civil service in an irrevocably interdependent world”.

However, UN civil servants need to be “trusted” in order to be “entrusted” with this responsibility. It is for this reason that Hammarskjold worked hard to articulate and demonstrate the independence and neutrality of the Secretary-General and the Secretariat, and their “international responsibilities”, as opposed to “intergovernmental” responsibilities. A corollary is that UN civil servants serve, and are accountable to, not only Member States, but also other stakeholders.

In some ways, Hammarskjöld not only helped define and demonstrate in practice the potential and functions of the Secretary-General, not only the potential and functions of the United Nations, but also the potential and functions of international cooperation.

It was absolutely a quiet revolution, or, better, evolution, which he and colleagues furthered with vision, determination and persistence.

To better understand Dag Hammarskjöld and his role as Secretary-General, it is very useful to cross read his personal and spiritual journal, “Markings”, and his public speeches, including at the meetings of the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.

To me it was an eye opener. The ethical person of “Markings” merged with the political Secretary-General function, instrument of the “harmonizing” called for in Art. 1.4 of the UN Charter. Ethics and international civil service became to my eyes one thing: living ethics.

A very concrete example that I could try to imitate in my job.

There are  three passages which for me are a sort of summary of his guidance:

The public servant is there in order to assist, so to say from the inside, those who make the decisions which frame history. He should - as I see it - listen, analyze and learn to understand fully the forces at work and the interests at stake, so that he will be able to give the right advice when the situation calls for it. Don't think that he  takes but a passive part in the development. It is a most active one. But he is active as an instrument, a catalyst, perhaps an inspirer - he serves.
…the qualities it requires are just those which I feel we all need today: perseverance and patience, a firm grip on realities, careful but imaginative planning, a clear awareness of the dangers but also of the fact that fate is what we make it and that the safest climber is he who never questions his ability to overcome all difficulties.


The weight we carry … is based solely on trust in our impartiality, our experience and knowledge, our maturity of judgment.

Furthermore, speaking of neutrality and self-consciousness,

The international civil servant must keep himself under the strictest observation. He is not requested to be a neuter in the sense that he has to have no sympathies or antipathies, that there are to be no interests which are close to him in his personal capacity or he is to have no ideas or ideals that matter for him. However, he is requested to be fully aware of those human reactions and meticulously check himself so that they are not permitted to influence his actions. This is not unique. Is not every judge professionally under the same obligation?
If the international civil servant knows himself to be free from such personal influences in his actions and guided solely by the common aims and rules laid down for, and by the organization his serves and by recognized legal principles, then he has done his duty, and then he can face the criticism which even so will be unavoidable.  … and if integrity in the sense of respect for a law and respect for the truth where to drive him into positions of conflict with this or that interest, then that conflict is a sign of his neutrality and not of his failure to observe neutrality – then it is in line, not in conflict, with his duties as an international civil servant.

Evolving International Cooperation

Empowered by this ethics, Hammarskjöld dived into intergovernmental relations and actively worked to transform them from coexistence into international cooperation, in line with the vision and precepts of the Charter of the United Nations.

I would like to stress this: a shift from “intergovernmental relations” and “coexistence” to “international cooperation” that could be described as “relations serving a planetary plan inspired by a common purpose”. This is not a small thing. This is not something which can be taken for granted.

In 1945, it was the first time ever, at least, in recorded history, that humanity, through some visionary and pragmatic servants, made such commitment on a planetary scale: a commitment to international cooperation for development.

What this is and entails though is not a clear-cut thing and it is still work in progress. It is very important to bear in mind that the United Nations is an experiment. Doing so helps keep alight the flame of enthusiasm and research for new opportunities and potential which may not be visible at the moment.

We are in a transition toward a “constitutional system of international cooperation”. The word “constitutional” should not scare people off or induce a sense of rigidity. Indeed, “the institutional system” embodied in the Charter has already demonstrated the capacity to innovate, similarly to organic adaptation to needs and experiments. “Constitutional” as built on the rule of law in its broadest sense.

Indeed, taking the lead from the UN Charter, the development and codification of international law has dramatically contributed to define the parameters of behaviors which could facilitate a cooperative approach. The duty to cooperate is a well established principle of international law. International human rights law has defined standards for right human relations. International environmental law and disaster risk reduction are guiding humans to have a better relation with Mother Earth and its other kingdoms.

Together with the development of international law, technical cooperation programs have been developed, plan of actions adopted and initiatives undertaken with the purpose of transforming words into change for the better.

The speed and smoothness of such transition toward a “constitutional system of international cooperation” does not depend on the Charter, rather from the consciousness of humans and the capacity to fully comprehend, embrace and embody such wider dimension, which goes beyond individual, group, national and even regional’s interests. It is quite an exercise of consciousness gymnastic!

Through cooperation, the “common good” continuously acquires new content and meaning, and the SDGs are just but the latest example. And the new common good in turn requires the continuous development of forms of cooperation. A virtuous cycle!

Cooperation for the common good of humanity requires the uncompromised commitment and the best that every country can express and offer – a “new nationalism” Hammarskjöld called it.

Principles like “national interest”, “domestic jurisdiction” and “self-determination” need a new connotation and interpretation. These principles can no longer be misused to justify and perpetuate selfish behaviors and breakaways from agreed frameworks. They are fundamental to allow the growth of the potential that each nation can and need to contribute to the collective efforts toward the realizations of the common ends expressed in the UN Charter. With this meaning and intent only, they should be invoked and respected, as they are instrumental to an ever better world cooperation.

Also, the ethical dimension of international cooperation is increasingly evident – the SDGs’ “leave no one behind” is an interesting expression.

Something particularly important happened last year. Four major agreements, which are largely coherent in their sum total, were reached: the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development, the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals, and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It is possible to argue that they are hierarchically structured, with the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs at the apex.

In my opinion this is a major milestone: unless I am wrong, this is the first time that we have such a holistic agreed plan with a planetary scope. Of course, we could discuss for hours whether they are good enough, and it is important to do so in order to introduce adjustments in the ensuing course of action. But what I would like to place emphasis on is the fact that we have been able to come up with a planetary plan, a plan of shared interest with a planetary scale.

It has never happened in human history. It is a big thing. I think that this has opened a new page in international cooperation.

The United Nations has been instrumental to countries in achieving this result. And it will remain instrumental in harmonizing the actions of nations in implementation.

It is definitely an incredible opportunity we all have to contribute to its realization.


Following Hammarskjold’s example, it is important that UN Staff, delegates, civil society, business and others that in various ways participate to further international cooperation and the “harmonizing [of] the actions of nations in the attainment of the common ends” reflect upon the international service that needs to be rendered, the role of the United Nations in light of the UN Charter’s Principles, including Art. 1.4, and mostly how to prepare for it personally and professionally.

Doing so is an essential investment.

And I conclude with Hammarskjöld’s words: “Perhaps a future generation, which knows the outcome of the present efforts, will look at them with some irony. They will see where we fumbled and they will find it difficult to understand why we did not see the direction more clearly and work more consistently towards the target it indicates. So it will always be, but let us hope that they will not find any reason to criticize us because of a lack of that combination of steadfastness of purpose and flexibility of approach which alone guarantee that the possibilities which we are exploring will have been tested to the full. Working at the edge of the development of human society is to work on the brink of the unknown. Much of what is done will one day prove to have been of little avail. That is no excuse for the failure to act in accordance with our best understanding, in recognition of its limits but with faith in the ultimate result of the creative evolution in which it is our privilege to cooperate”.

*Marco Toscano-Rivalta is a staff member of the United Nations. The views expressed in this paper or in its final oral delivery are personal and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the United Nations.