United Nations Administrative Law

By Cyril Emery

Cyril Emery is the Librarian of the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

NOTE: The views expressed in this article are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the International Court of Justice.

Published January/February 2022

1. Introduction

The United Nations (UN) Secretariat has a staff of over 35,000 employees and is by far the largest administrative body of the UN system.[1] Naturally, an organization with this many employees will see a variety of disputes related to the rights and obligations of those staff members. The goal of this research guide is to present the sources of law that govern those employment disputes and the research tools and strategies useful for examining those sources. While the direct application of this body of law is limited to the staff of the UN, it is highly influential on the administrative law of other inter-governmental organizations,[2] and the field in general may be relevant as a model for domestic administrative and labor law.[3]

While this guide focuses on the employment relations of the UN, the broader field of UN administrative law is often construed to cover related topics, such as the privileges and immunities of the organization and its staff with regards to national jurisdictions and the organization’s financial rules. Some of the sources mentioned below touch on these issues, but each of these topics would need its own research guide to be dealt with in a meaningful way.

Finally, the main preoccupation of this guide is concrete textual sources of law with a substantial connection to the jurisprudence of the UN administrative tribunals or administration of the UN Secretariat.[4] Thus, some speculative and/or unwritten sources, such as domestic or municipal law, general principles, organizational practice, and equity, are not specifically addressed. Researchers, however, can easily examine the application of these kinds of sources by looking at the jurisprudence of the administrative tribunals (see section 4).[5]

Research Resources

For general treatises in this field, consider:

2. Fundamental Documents

In a manner similar to national constitutions, there are certain fundamental UN documents that take precedence over the specialized administrative rules and regulations governing the rights and obligations of staff members. In particular, the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and General Assembly resolutions are referenced in this regard by UN administrative tribunals.[6] Generally, these sources cover issues much broader than employment, but they can be relevant for administrative issues in particular situations. The UDHR, for example, is frequently cited for the proposition of equal pay for equal work.[7] Administrative issuances, in their introductory paragraphs, often cite General Assembly resolutions for authority.[8]

Research Resources

3. Administrative Documents

For UN Secretariat staff, beyond the specifics of the employment contract,[9] the particularities of rights and obligations are governed most generally by the Staff Regulations and Rules of the United Nations, currently ST/SGB/2018/1/Rev.1. More detailed provisions are then covered by a supplementary array of formal administrative documents, namely Administrative Instructions, Secretary-General Bulletins, and Information Circulars covering topics from attendance to taxes.

Research Resources

The UN Secretariat offers various tools to aid in accessing the provisions relevant to any given situation.

Beyond the formal issuances and circulars, there are various memoranda, announcements, guidelines, manuals, and other documents that may implicate rights and obligations, but many of these are available only internally (for example, via the UN intranet, iSeek), and they are considered to be of lower authority.[12]

Finally, while it is only a descriptive document, the Secretary-General prepares annually a report titled “Practice of the Secretary-General in disciplinary matters and cases of possible criminal behaviour” (currently, covering 2020, A/76/602). This useful document provides insight into the nature and severity of specific instances of misconduct and the resulting administrative response. For an even broader view, there is now a consolidated version, UN Off. of Hum. Res., Compendium of Disciplinary Measures: Practice of the Secretary-General in Disciplinary Matters and Cases of Criminal Behaviour from 1 July 2009 to 31 December 2020 (2021) archive, which includes a detailed spreadsheet with the data archive.

4. Courts and Tribunals

A Staff Member’s Guide to Resolving Disputes archive, the Handbook on the Internal Justice System at the United Nations, and The Roadmap: A Staff Member’s Guide to Finding the Right Place archive provide good overviews of the various informal and formal mechanisms available to UN Secretariat staff to resolve conflicts with the administration.[13] Of these mechanisms, the only path that may generate generally applicable rules is through the currently active administrative tribunals, namely the UN Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) and the UN Appeals Tribunal (UNAT). While it is only the decisions of these two tribunals that can be considered as binding or as precedent in the context of the UN Secretariat, there are other legal fora, described below, the decisions of which may influence the UNDT and UNAT.[14]

4.1. UN Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) and UN Appeals Tribunal (UNAT)

Since 2009, the UNDT and UNAT provide first and second instance mechanisms for UN staff to formally challenge decisions of the organization’s administration related to employment issues.[15] Each tribunal has its own Statute[16] and Rules of Procedure,[17] and their jurisdiction differs in certain aspects, not only in that the UNAT has appellate jurisdiction for UNDT decisions but also in that it has jurisdiction over appeals to decisions taken in organizations beyond the UN Secretariat.[18] The decisions of the UNAT are binding and final without appeal.[19]

Research Resources

UNDT and UNAT judgments and orders are full-text searchable individually from their respective websites and, simultaneously, from Unite Search (select “(OAJ) Office Administrative Justice”).

As there are over 6,000 decisions examining a relatively narrow field, however, researchers may find more curated sources to be of greater use.

4.2. UN Administrative Tribunal (1950-2009)

From 1950 to 2009, UN Secretariat staff could challenge administration decisions before the UN Administrative Tribunal.[20] While the decisions of the UN Administrative Tribunal are not binding on the UNDT and UNAT, they are often persuasive and have been cited frequently by the current administrative tribunals.[21] While there was no appeal for staff members, the organization could, from 1955 to 1996, request the International Court of Justice to review decisions (see section 4.6).

Research Resources

4.3. UNRWA Dispute Tribunal (UNRWA DT)

The Dispute Tribunal of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East began operations in 2011.[22] Its decisions have a particular relevance for the UN Secretariat system since it is the only formal dispute tribunal besides the UNDT from which the UNAT hears appeals.[23]

Research Resources

4.4. Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (ILOAT)

In continual operation since first hearing cases in 1947, the ILOAT may be the most influential of all inter-governmental organization (IGO) administrative tribunals.[24] It has its origins in the League of Nations Administrative Tribunal,[25] and staff from over 50 IGOs, including many broader UN system entities, have access to the ILOAT for challenging administrative decisions.[26] As such, it is no surprise that UNAT and UNDT frequently refer to its decisions.

Research Resources

4.5. Administrative Tribunals of the World Bank Group (WBAT) and the International Monetary Fund (IMFAT)

Some of the primary international financial institutions in the UN system (those of the World Bank Group and the IMF) are served by two administrative tribunals, WBAT and IMFAT. Although they have produced relatively fewer decisions, the jurisprudence of these two tribunals is cited by the UNDT and UNAT from time to time.

Research Resources

4.6. International Court of Justice (ICJ)

From 1955 to 1996,[27] the ICJ provided a forum for the UN to request the review, on certain grounds, of decisions of the UN Administrative Tribunal.[28] During that time, the ICJ was called upon to serve that function three times, upholding the decisions of the UN Administrative Tribunal in each case.[29] The ICJ’s role in this regard was ended on 1 January 1996 after the UN General Assembly determined that it had “not proved to be a constructive or useful element in the adjudication of staff disputes with the Organization.”[30] UN Member States had noted that the civil service law-type questions presented in these cases fell outside ICJ’s usual area of concern, that these kinds of cases had a different level of significance compared to the ICJ’s other cases, and that the procedure was problematic as only the UN could request a review.[31]

From 1946 until 2016, the ICJ served a similar review role for the governing bodies of the relevant organizations to request the review of decisions of the ILOAT,[32] but, in 2012, the ICJ drew attention itself to the procedural problem of equality of access in its second and final ILOAT review case.[33] In 2016, the ILOAT Statute was amended to remove any recourse to the ICJ.[34]

Despite the historical nature of the ICJ’s role in this field and the limited case law it produced, the ICJ’s jurisprudence in these review cases remains influential.

Research Resources

The UN Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) is frequently called upon to prepare legal opinions on institutional and personnel issues. A selection of these opinions are published in Chapter VI of the UN Juridical Yearbook and an online-only special edition of the Yearbook. These opinions are often overlooked in academic works on UN administrative law but can be related to important aspects of the rights and privileges of staff, including, for example, having previously clarified rules concerning the permanent residency status of staff[35] and the due process rights of staff members in any action by the organization related to recovering or withholding funds from them.[36]

Research Resources

[1] See UN Sys. Chief Exec. Bd. for Coordination, Personnel by organization (last visited 6 Jan. 2022) archive; UN Sec’y-Gen., Composition of the Secretariat: staff demographics, UN Doc. A/75/591 (9 Nov. 2020).

[2] See, e.g., Gerhard Ullrich, The Law of the International Civil Service: Institutional Law and Practice in International Organisation 46-47 (2018); Chittharanjan Felix Amerasinghe, Reflections on the International Judicial Systems of International Organizations, in The Development and Effectiveness of International Administrative Law: On the Occasion of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the World Bank Administrative Tribunal 33, 33-37 (Olufemi Elias ed., 2012).

[3] See Benedict Kingsbury & Richard B. Stewart, Administrative Tribunals of International Organizations from the Perspective of the Emerging Global Administrative Law, in The Development and Effectiveness of International Administrative Law, supra note 2, at 69, 87-88, 102-104.

[4] Please note, for the purposes of this guide, when “UN administrative tribunals” appears in lower case it applies to the current tribunals, the UN Dispute Tribunal and the UN Appeals Tribunal, as well as the prior tribunal, the UN Administrative Tribunal, which will always appear capitalized.

[5] See, for example, as highlighted in the UNRWA Disp. Trib., Handbook on UN Administrative Law 74 (regarding national law), 34-41 (regarding general principles), 131 (regarding equity) (2021) archive. For more on this topic, see also Chittharanjan Felix Amerasinghe, The Law of the International Civil Service: As Applied by International Administrative Tribunals ch. 10-14 (2d rev. ed. 1994).

[6] See UNRWA Disp. Trib., supra note 5, at 74-75.

[7] G.A. Res. 217 (III) A, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, art. 23(2) (10 Dec. 1948); UNRWA Disp. Trib., supra note 5, at 75.

[8] See, e.g., UN Secretariat, Administrative instruction: official travel, UN Doc. ST/AI/2013/3, 1 (citing G.A. Res. 67/254 A (12 Apr. 2013)).

[9] See UNRWA Disp. Trib., supra note 5, at 74.

[10] The Policy Portal is an update to the UN Human Resources Handbook, which offered similar features.

[11] While the most recent offerings are from 2019, these indices are still useful in locating older but still valid administrative documents.

[12] Id. at 75.

[13] See also Administration of justice at the UN: UN internal justice system (last visited 6 Jan. 2022), in general.

[14] See UNRWA Disp. Trib., supra note 5, at 67; Ullrich, supra note 2, at 449-452; Amerasinghe, supra note 2, at 196-198; Obdeijn v. Sec’y-Gen. of the UN, UNDT/2011/032, paras. 51-52 (10 Feb. 2011), paras. 51-52 (noting persuasive value of the UN Administrative Tribunal and the ILOAT), aff’d, Obdeijn v. Sec’y-Gen. of the UN, 2012-UNAT-201 (16 Mar. 2012).

[15] See UN Off. of Admin. of Just., Ten Years of the New Administration of Justice System at the United Nations: Digest of Case Law 2009-2019 xi (2019) archive.

[16] Statute of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (22 Dec. 2018) archive; Statute of the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (last visited 6 Jan. 2022) archive [hereinafter UNAT Statute].

[17] UN Disp. Trib., Rules of procedure of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (16 Dec. 2009) archive; UN App. Trib., Rules of procedure of the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (Oct. 2020) archive.

[18] See Who can use the system (last visited 6 Jan. 2022) archive.

[19] UNAT Statute, supra note 16, at art. 10, secs. 5-6.

[20] G.A. Res. 351(IV), art. 2 (9 Dec. 1949); G.A. Res. 63/253, paras. 42-43 (24 Dec. 2008).

[21] See UNRWA Disp. Trib., supra note 5, at 67.

[22] UNRWA Disp. Trib., First Activity Report of the UNRWA Dispute Tribunal: June 2011 to December 2014 1 (2014) archive.

[23] Who can use the system (last visited 6 Jan. 2022) archive.

[24] See Ullrich, supra note 2, at 449-452.

[25] See Int’l Lab. Conf., Resolution [IV] concerning the adoption of the revised Statute of the Administrative Tribunal, 29 ILO O.J. 318, 319 (1946, 29th sess.).

[26] ILO Admin. Trib., Organizations recognizing the jurisdiction (last visited 6 Jan. 2022) archive.

[27] G.A. Res. 957(X) (8 Nov. 1955); G.A. Res. 50/54 (11 Dec. 1995).

[28] The General Assembly made review of UN Administrative Tribunal decisions by the ICJ an explicit possibility in 1955 because of a 1954 ICJ Advisory Opinion holding that, in the absence of a review procedure, the UN had to abide by Tribunal decisions. See UN Sec’y-Gen., Review of the procedure provided for under article 11 of the Statute of the Administrative Tribunal of the United Nations, UN Doc. A/C.6/49/2, para. 4 (17 Oct. 1994) (referring to Effect of awards of comp. made by the UN Admin. Trib., Advisory Op., 1954 I.C.J. 47, 56).

[29] UN Doc. A/C.6/49/2, supra note 28, at para. 8 (citing Application for rev. of Judgment No. 158 of the UN Admin. Trib., Advisory Op., 1973 I.C.J. 166; Application for rev. of Judgment No. 273 of the UN Admin. Trib., Advisory Op., 1982 I.C.J. 325; Application for rev. of Judgment No. 333 of the UN Admin. Trib., Advisory Op., 1987 I.C.J. 18).

[30] G.A. Res. 50/54 (11 Dec. 1995) (as cited by Simon Chesterman & Karin Oellers-Frahm, Article 92 UN Charter, in The Statute of the International Court of Justice: A Commentary 208, 219-220 (Andreas Zimmermann et al. eds., 3d ed. 2019)).

[31] See UN Doc. A/C.6/49/2, supra note 28, at para. 18.

[32] The ILOAT Statute, upon its adoption in 1946, only made provision for the ILOAT to hear complaints related to the International Labour Organization (ILO) in its article 2, while the ICJ’s review jurisdiction was covered in article 13, Resolution [IV] concerning the adoption of the revised Statute of the Administrative Tribunal, 29 ILO O.J. 318, 319 (1946, 29th sess.). The ILOAT Statute article 2 was amended in 1949 to provide the ILOAT jurisdiction related to other organizations, and the ICJ’s review jurisdiction was relocated to article 12, ILO, Statute and Rules of Court of the Administrative Tribunal (1950).

[33] See Chesterman & Oellers-Frahm, supra note 30, at 220 (citing Judgment No. 2867 of the Admin. Trib. of the ILO upon a complaint filed against the IFAD, Advisory Op., 2012 I.C.J. 10, 29, para. 44). The first ILOAT review case, Judgments of the Admin. Trib. of the ILO upon complaints made against UNESCO, Advisory Op., 1956 I.C.J. 77, was brought to the ICJ fifty-five years before the second.

[34] Int’l Lab. Conf., Resolution [IX] concerning the Statute of the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization (7 June 2016, 105th sess.) (deletion of art. 12 and annex, art. 12, para. 1) archive.

[35] Interoffice memorandum to the Office of Human Resources Policy Services, United Nations, regarding permanent resident status in a country other than the United States, 2005 UN Jurid. Y.B. 468 archive.

[36] Financial responsibility of staff member: memorandum to the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Resources Management, 2002 UN Jurid. Y.B. 458 archive.