top of page

Strengthening the UN Ethics Office: A never ending merry-go-round.

26 March 2023

By Katja Hemmerich

Desk with binders entitled Ethics and Core Values on it, along with a cell phone, glasses, and plant.

As a follow on from last week’s spotlight on audit functions, this week we highlight the proposals to strengthen the Ethics Office of the UN Secretariat, initiated in 2017 and most recently discussed on 16 March 2023 by the Fifth Committee.

Since 2017, measures to strengthen the Ethics Office have been proposed to the Fifth Committee, as these specific measures fall under the purview of the General Assembly’s (GA) decision making authority - but to date no decision has been taken.

The aim of the three specific proposals is to enhance the independence of the Ethics Office by:

  1. Having the Ethics Office report directly to the General Assembly, not through the UN Secretary-General, as is current practice;

  2. Establishing a direct reporting line to the Independent Audit Advisory Committee to oversee workplanning and performance of the Ethics Office, and if needed, shield it from management pressures; and

  3. Raising the level of the head of the Ethics Office from a D-2 to an Assistant Secretary-General (ASG), which is one level below that of the Secretariat’s internal audit function, i.e. the Under-Secretary General of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).

These proposals are fully aligned with the recommendations of the latest Joint Inspection Unit’s (JIU) Review of the Ethics Function in the UN system in 2021, JIU/REP/2021/5 (and the preceding 2010 review) as well as with the UN Chief Executive’s Board's (CEB) 2014 Risk Management, Oversight and Accountability Model for the UN System. And yet, the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) has thus far not endorsed the proposals and recommended against the raising of the level of head of the Ethics Office, and the Fifth Committee has taken no decision on any of the proposals. Accordingly, the proposals have repeatedly been submitted to the GA and reviewed by the ACABQ over the last six years, all with the same lack of result. The ACABQ has indicated in its previous four reports on the proposals that it does not feel there is sufficient information provided to justify them. The JIU in its 2021 review disagrees with this view, indicating “the Secretary-General, in his annual ethics report for 2020, again provides ample explanations and justifications for the proposals made, which are fully in line with JIU suggested standards” (para. 104). Nevertheless, the ACABQ repeated its concern about a lack of information in its 2022 review of the proposals to strengthen the Ethics Office (A/77/545) which is currently under discussion by the Fifth Committee. Are the ACABQ and Fifth Committee just being difficult?

Further examination of various reports from the Secretary-General and how accountability is addressed under different agenda items of the Fifth Committee might help shed light on why this debate is seemingly stuck on a merry-go-round that never stops. The proposals to strengthen the Ethics Office are submitted as part of the Secretary-General’s annual report on the Ethics Office. In principle this report is prepared by the Ethics Office independently and just presented by the Secretary-General (SG), but currently it is unclear to what extent the SG engages with the content of that report or whether he is just a postbox. This creates a lack of clarity about what is being proposed independently by the Ethics Office versus what is part of the SG’s accountability strategy. Ironically it also highlights why the independent reporting line to the General Assembly would be helpful in bringing greater clarity to various ethics-related issues. In this particular instance, the potential for confusion has also been compounded by the fact that the annual report on the Ethics Office is presented under the Human Resources agenda item of the Fifth Committee, meaning that it is under a different agenda item than the SG’s updates on strengthening accountability of the UN. The SG’s progress reports on accountability in the UN are presented under the agenda item entitled “Review of the efficiency of the administrative and financial functioning o the United Nations”. This is the item under which the SG also presented his 2017 management reforms, which included a strong emphasis on enhancing accountability of the UN. Both the management reform (A/72/492) and the 2017 progress report on accountability in 2017 (A/72/773) presented a three lines of defence model for good governance and accountability, generally considered an international best practice.

“According to the model, the first line of defence includes the functions that own and manage risks and are responsible for implementing corrective actions to address process and control deficiencies (i.e., operational managers). The second line of defence comprises central management functions that oversee risk and internal controls and provide support and guidance in those areas. The third line of defence includes the functions that provide independent assurances, such as those conducted by OIOS.” - A/72/773, para. 64

The SG’s progress reports on accountability specifically indicate that the Ethics Office is part of the second line of defence with a reporting line to the SG, and not as part of the third line of defense with an independent reporting line to the governing body. This version of the three lines of defence, however, appears to contradict not only the SG’s report making proposals to strengthen the Ethics Office (A/77/75), but also the UN Chief Executives’ Board’s (CEB) own risk management, oversight and accountability model adopted in 2014. In both cases, they explicitly consider the Ethics function as part of the third line of defence, providing independent assurance as a result of its independent reporting line and access to the governing body. The CEB, chaired by the SG and made up of Executive Heads of participating UN entities, has also submitted separate comments (A/77/258/Add.1) on the JIU’s 2021 review of the ethics function in the UN system indicating they partially accept the recommendations of the JIU, despite the fact that the JIU recommendations generally reinforce the CEB 2014 risk management model. The somewhat contradictory reports give rise to the possibility of interpreting the ACABQ’s concerns around lack of information as a lack of understanding of what the UN senior management really wants with regards to the Ethics function. An additional complicating factor is that the human resources agenda item has failed to find agreement amongst the Fifth Committee resulting in the absence of any resolution for that agenda item (see our 5 March spotlight). Possibly there is disagreement amongst member states on the proposals to strengthen the Ethics Office, or it could simply be that the Ethics Office proposals have fallen victim to other disagreements on human resources and the resulting lack of a resolution. An important purpose of the Ethics Office the JIU’s review and the accountability improvements has been to strengthen trust in the United Nations. The lack of agreement on strengthening the Ethics Office does not help enhance trust. Accordingly, it may be time for stakeholders to change the dynamics of the debate in order to find some level of agreement. We see two possible options that could be considered:

  1. As the human resources agenda item is likely to remain one fraught with controversy, perhaps the annual report on the Ethics Office could be considered under the Review of efficiency agenda item to separate it out from other disagreements; and/or

  2. 'Friends' of the Ethics Office could consider hosting informal consultations among stakeholders to clarify different positions and concerns, address ACABQ informational concerns and potentially find points of agreement.


  • WFP's Executive Board holds an informal consultation on 30 March 2023 on the draft country strategic plans that will be considered at the formal session and which are currently open for comments until 11 April 2023. Also on 30 March, it holds its second informal consultation on the WFP cash policy being updated.

  • UNHCR's Executive Committee holds an informal preparatory consultation on ExCom conclusions on 30 March 2023.

  • The UNICEF Executive Board is also making draft country programmes available for comment by 10 April 2023.

  • The General Assembly's Fifth Committee holds its final week of meetings for the first part of the resumed session. Most remain to be determined by the Committee. It has scheduled another informal consultation on investing in peacebuilding and the related request for assessed funding on 27 March 2023 (see our analysis in the 12 March spotlight).


bottom of page