Defending the truths of the UN Charter has taken guts, ambition, but above all courage. As such was seen in the legendary bravery of former Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello and former UN Secretary General, Dag Hammarskjöld. In efforts to understand these two men and the role courage should play in the UN system, GVI’s Gesù Antonio Báez interviewed UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Colombia, Fabrizio Hochschild to discover more.
1) In your article “In and above conflict: a study on leadership in the United Nations” you begin with the quote “The world needs leaders made strong by vision, sustained by ethics, and revealed by political courage….”: Could you explain what exactly is political courage and is it present in the current UN System?
Political courage is akin to moral courage, it is about standing up for those who do not have a voice, it is the courage to speak truth to power in order to uphold the values of the UN Charter.
The importance of moral courage – especially among the organization’s senior leaders – is not always adequately promoted and celebrated. There are many examples of it, especially in the field, and I would suggest more among junior colleagues. As we get more senior, many of us grow less willing to speak up and we tend to place a greater value on caution, on maintaining relationships and avoiding controversy.
2) You worked for many years with the late Sergio Vieira de Mello who for many, together with former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, is viewed as an example of the political courageousness and valiance. What was it about these two extraordinary men that was so unique? Can you identify anyone present in the current system who has these qualities?
Sergio I knew well, Hammarskjöld only indirectly, mainly from reading. Both were motivated by many of the same convictions about the UN but were quite different in style and character. Hammarskjöld was a Swedish civil servant and former central banker while Sergio was a Brazilian career UN staffer and former student activist with long work experience in conflict areas.
Both were inspired by the notion that the UN served and promoted international values and norms. Both believed strongly in the importance of the independence of the UN Secretariat and the need for staff to be scrupulous in avoiding representing individual member state or regional interests. Both believed that the main purpose of the UN was to serve the less fortunate, those without access to power or influence and that staff needed to be guided by the values set out in the UN Charter. At the heart of Hammarskjöld´s vision – which inspired Sergio – was his concept of integrity: Integrity not understood in the narrow sense it is often used now but in broader terms, integrity not merely as avoiding breaking UN staff rules, but more importantly as an obligation to pro-actively uphold the standards and norms of the UN especially when it is difficult and controversial to do so.
Hammarskjöld was reflective, cerebral and, as “Markings” reveals, quite spiritual. He argued flawlessly based on principle and law. Sergio´s approach and style differed. He relied more on charm, charisma, eloquence and an uncanny ability to empathize with his interlocutor than on principle and conceptual reasoning to win over others to the cause of the organization. He also drew a lot on his field experience.
Both to this day move and inspire staff. I have seen examples of their skill, vision and courage at every level in the organization.
3) In life, it is sometimes necessary to take risks in order to achieve a greater good. This, of course, takes courage. However, in the present UN System, many within are afraid of taking those risks for fear of losing job security. What action do you think must happen in order to encourage more courage within the system and generate true leadership? And by which actors (e.g. managers, directors, general staff, NGO’s, etc)?
There are a number of things that can be done. The first is that field work should be encouraged, as well as first hand exposure to the conflict situations the UN was created to attend to. This experience is far more likely to light the flame of passion and conviction which nurtures the courage to stand up for what is right. Where staff only know UN service from sitting in an office in New York or Geneva, far removed from those we serve, it is much harder to gain the inspiration and courage that comes with field service. Those who have lived through conflict, witnessed crimes against humanity or been exposed to extreme poverty, know that job security is not what matters most.
A second thing that can be done is to look again at our recruitment and promotion processes. We need to value much more integrity in the sense Hammarskjöld understood it in these processes. We don’t value sufficiently the ability of skillfully, tactfully and courageously advancing principled causes where it is difficult and controversial to do so. We need to go back to what Hammarskjöld stood for and what most people want from the UN: The courage, conviction and skill to uphold and promote the implementation of universal values; the disposition to serve those in direst need and to be able to do so under pressure without flinching or undue compromise. We need to seek out and recruit those who have a proven record of this in their CVs. We also need more women in leadership positions.
Thirdly we need to re-awaken what made most staff want to join the organization but then too often gets diluted or forgotten as their careers progress. Caution and inaction too often become the default tendencies in light of contradictory pressures and a risk and criticism averse culture. We too rarely risk sticking our necks out until we are sure we are not too exposed and we are part of a pack of powerful interests. We must learn again to work more from a norms and values based perspective and accept that friction and criticism is inevitable when we do that. We also have to think less about how we will be judged today or tomorrow and more about what history will have to say about what we managed to do and the positions we took.
And finally, those of us who are senior have to do better at trying to set an example, an example in conviction and persistence, and in terms of independence from member state interests and upholding the international norms when it many be perilous and difficult to do so. We need to try and set an example for younger, more junior staff rather than profiting from their idealism and commitment while not doing enough to nurture it. We have to do more to create a culture where staff feel safe and supported taking initiative and taking risks in pursuit of what the organization stands for.