The book, “The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership” edited by Kent J. Kille is an in depth research into how the ethical framework of a UN secretary-general effects his actions in that position. An ethical framework is “the combination of personal values that establish the beliefs, forms of reasoning, and interpretations of the world that guide an individual when making judgments about proper behavior in specific contexts,” (Kille 20). The book is an examination of the first seven secretaries-general, who were in office in the 60 year time period between 1946 and 2006 (Note: For this report, secretaries-general will be referred to with the male pronoun as to date, there have only been male secretaries-general). These men were strongly influenced by their respective upbringings and ethics. Each secretary-general is represented in his or her own chapter, researched and written by a different author. These chapters first discuss the ethical framework of the secretary-general at hand then focus on his experiences as the office holder and finally how his ethical framework shaped his decisions.
A UN secretary-general makes his decisions based on the evaluation and balance of two factors: the ethical framework against external factors. Jones explains this further, “Each set of guidelines-the code within and the external code-makes uncompromising demands. It is up to the individual secretary-general to negotiate between the two in order to determine what will guide him as he meets the crises that will invariably occur during his tenure” (p.39). The external code of a secretary-general includes UN Charter, international political code, and the expectations of the general assembly.
Article 99 of the UN Charter is a direct mix of the external and internal frameworks of the secretary-general. It states “the secretary-general ‘may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security,” (p.8). This gives power to the secretary-general to use his own judgment to make a matter an international issue. Sir Eric Drummond, the first secretary general of the League of Nations called Article 99 a duty “that would demand that the post be filled by a person of “high integrity and great courage,” (p.48).
It is important to understand the concept of ethical framework in relations to the seven discussed secretaries-general. As previously stated, an ethical background is made up of the experiences, religion and upbringing of a person. The secretaries-general have surprisingly similar backgrounds. Dorothy V. Jones, the author of the second chapter, says, “Despite differences in background, these men have more in common with each other than with many of the citizens of the countries of their birth and upbringing,” (p.47). Each of the secretaries-general had university educations and some previous UN experience. Most had held government positions, and took the position at about the same age. Most of all, all the men had some form of religious upbringing. These are factors that formed the ethical frameworks of the secretaries-general, but how they used their similar backgrounds in their roles as the leader varies greatly.
One can clearly see the interaction of ethical framework and external factors in the decisions of the second secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld. Hammarskjöld was elected secretary general in 1953. He was raised Lutheran, and the author of the chapter on Hammarskjöld, Alynna J. Lyon, said that his spiritual ruminations and writings make “Hammarskjold’s moral convictions among the most obvious of all the secretaries-general,” (p.111).
The clearest case of his ethical framework playing a role in his leadership in the UN presented in the book was not of his leadership during an international crisis, but during a situation within the UN. Hammarskjöld took office in the midst of the Cold War and McCarthyism. It was a tumultuous time in the UN, The Soviet Union and The United States were constantly butting heads. His predecessor, Trygve Lie from Norway, had allowed the FBI into the UN Headquarters in New York to investigate Secretariat staff for Cold War Sympathies. This was an action directly in violation of the charter, which states that a member state cannot try to influence the UN staff, and that it is the Secretary-general that has the ability to appoint and remove staff. Hammarskjöld immediately revoked this FBI privilege upon coming into office.
This decision shows how Hammarskjöld was affected by the external factors of a UN secretary-general, but also plays quite clearly into his ethical framework. Lyon said, “The ties between faith and moral conviction are key elements in Hammarskjold’s decisiveness,” (p.134) His mother country, Sweden, is a historically neutral state, and that norm of neutrality played an important part in his decision. His removal of the FBI from the UN headquarters shows that Hammarskjöld wanted to enforce the same neutrality by not allowing the United States to have special powers that were directly offensive to the Soviet Union. In addition, it is directly in line with Hammarskjöld’s Christian values. He felt it necessary to protect his staff from unwarranted search. Lyon said that Hammarskjöld, “clearly incorporated his own notions of neutrality and service into protecting his staff legally,” (126). His decision and handling of the situation was highly praised, and was skilled in such a way that it appeased the Soviet Union while not offending on a great scale the United States.
While Hammarskjöld took a stance of neutrality based on his upbringing, U Thant, the third secretary-general, shunned the idea completely based on his. Jones says, “Of the seven men who have held the office of secretary-general of the United Nations, Thant was the most explicit about his faith,” (p.59).
In all he did Thant strove toward impartiality, but not neutrality. The author of this chapter, A. Walter Dorn writes that,
[Thant] felt that on moral issues it was impossible and immoral to be neutral because neutrality implied a lack of concern…As a Buddhist, he believed that the welfare of all people was his concern. The same Buddhist attitude also meant that he should not discriminate among people: He should instead respect all individuals, though still take action to prevent wrongdoing.” (166).
Thant took the office of secretary general in 1961, directly following Hammarskjöld’s death in a plane crash. During his childhood and early adult life, Thant was exposed to the British rule of Burma and later the Japanese occupation. After Burmese independence, the Chinese Kuomintang took refuge in Burma, and a civil war broke out. His experiences with foreign entities installing themselves in his country lead to Thant shunning the neutrality that Hammarskjöld embraced.
His actions during the Congolese civil war are clearly based on his ethical framework toward impartiality and his Buddhist beliefs. Thant inherited the UN involvement in the war after Hammarskjöld’s sudden death. After long periods of trying to compromise with the Congo rebel forces, Thant found he could no longer keep UN as a neutral peace keeper in the war: It was necessary to send UN troops into an active battle. It was a decision reached with much difficulty, as Buddhism abhors violence, but Thant felt that he was no longer able to justify not taking military action in the Congo.
While Thant’s Buddhist beliefs made him abhor violent action, he had to weigh his entire ethical framework along with his duties as secretary-general in his decision to bring force into the Congo. He could no longer take a neutral stance; having been exposed to civil war in Burma, and watched it happen again in the breakup of India, Thant had a quite averse attitude toward secession. He said in February 1970, “The United Nations ‘has never accepted and does not accept, and I do not believe it will ever accept, the principle of secession of a part of its Member State,’” (p. 162). Thant was driven by the external factors of the UN expectations along with pressures from the international community, but still managed to weigh in his Buddhist beliefs and life experiences to inform his decision in the Congo.
It is clear that UN secretaries-general make their leadership decisions not only based on the external factors of the UN charter and international guidelines, but also based on their own upbringing and life experiences. Dag Hammarskjöld used his Swedish background of neutrality and his Christian instincts to protect those in a less powerful role than his own as a basis of his decision on whether to allow a foreign party to make decisions within the UN Headquarters. U Thant had to trust not only his Buddhist instincts in his decision to move forces into the Congo, but also had to take into account his life experiences in a nation torn in two by a civil war. These men certainly made mistakes during their tenures, but a remembered as good leaders.
The leaders of the United Nations do not put aside their own religious and ethical beliefs. The UN Charter in fact requires them to act with integrity, independence and impartiality, giving them moral authority in the position. They must use their experiences and beliefs to make the difficult and necessary decisions required.
Kille, Kent J. The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Kindle Edition. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. eBook.
Kille, Kent J. “Introduction.” Trans. Array The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Kille, Kent J. Kindle Edition. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. 1-7. eBook.
Kille, Kent J. “Moral Authority and the UN Secretary-General’s Ethical Framework.” Trans. Array The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Kille, Kent J. Kindle Edition. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. 7-39. eBook.
Dorothy V. Jones. “Seeking Balance: The Secretary General as Normative Negotiator.” Trans. Array The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Kille, Kent J. Kindle Edition. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. 39-67. eBook.
Alynna J. Lyon. “The UN Charter, the New Testament and Psalms; Moral Authority of Dag Hammarskjöld.” Trans. Array The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Kille, Kent J. Kindle Edition. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. 111-143. eBook.
Walter Dorn. “U Thant: Buddhism in Action.” Trans. Array The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics and Religion in International Leadership. Kille, Kent J. Kindle Edition. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. 143-187. eBook.