An Introduction to the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs by Caroline Armstrong Hall (F’20)

by cpinkerton
Apr 07

“International law is not the same as international relations,” Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, told participants at the opening of the International Law Weekend organized by the American Branch of the International Law Association on 10 October 2019. What he meant by this, he explained, is that in order to understand the role of international law in the current world order, it is important to distinguish the creation of new norms from the enforcement of existing ones. When viewed this way, its importance becomes clear. In times when conditions become less favorable to the development of new norms at the global level, international law serves as a bulwark against the erosion of previously-entrenched rules.

The Office of Legal Affairs (OLA), a department within the UN Secretariat that Mr. de Serpa Soares heads, plays an important role in ensuring the enforcement of such norms as they relate to the UN “family”. This rather endearing lingo refers to the Organization itself (as constituted by its founders in the UN Charter of 1945) as well as its funds, programs, specialized agencies and related entities, such as UNDP, UNICEF and UNHCR. OLA’s objective is to provide a unified, central legal service for the UN system, and it has been doing so as far back as 1946. With generous financial support from the Institute for Global Leadership, I had the opportunity to complete an internship at the Office of the Legal Counsel within OLA from August to December 2019. This post will offer a bird’s-eye view of OLA’s overall operations and a subsequent post will share some personal reflections based on my experiences in the Office of the Legal Counsel, specifically.

If we follow Mr de Serpa Soares’ line of reasoning, processes of international relations largely determine the overall content of new norms, but it is international law that gives them shape as they emerge as binding rules at the global level. The Codification Division, the part of OLA with perhaps the most legalese name, does just that. It assists with the codification and systematization of international law, as well as its progressive development. It achieves this by conducting thorough legal research and servicing bodies established to facilitate the clarification and development of international law—chief among them, the Sixth (Legal) Committee of the General Assembly and the International Law Commission. It also has an important educational and awareness-raising function, which it fulfills by giving courses around the world and disseminating and maintaining publications and other resources on international law, most of which are available freely online.

OLA also has two other divisions that focus on the development of the law in two highly specialized areas. These are the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, which primarily deals with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and other General Assembly processes for sea and ocean matters, and the International Trade Law Division. The latter has just achieved a major milestone with the “Singapore Convention on Mediation” opening for signature on August 7th, 2019. This treaty enables business partners to reach mediated solutions to commercial disputes that can be enforced in the courts of all countries bound by it. By enhancing the viability of a cost-effective option for dispute resolution in cross-border settings, the treaty makes it easier, cheaper and more predictable for people to do business internationally.

Just like at the domestic level, lawyers have a role to play not only in guiding the formation of new rules but also in ensuring their proper implementation on the international plane. With this in mind, my next post will explain the role of the Office of the Legal Counsel, where I completed my internship this year. For now, I will highlight the work of the General Legal Division, which provides legal advice and services to a broad range of clients within the UN family on the general operations and activities of the Organization and related entities. The Division’s work is indispensable to the day-to-day running of the UN and covers matters such as procurement; contracts and agreements; human resources; and credible claims of corruption or other wrongdoing brought against UN officials, experts on mission and third parties. It also represents the Secretary-General before the UN Appeals Tribunal as well as the Organization before other judicial and arbitral bodies.

Similarly, the Treaty Section facilitates the operation and implementation of treaties by registering, filing, recording and publishing them. Many international lawyers and international relations specialists are unaware that Member States have an obligation under the UN Charter to register with the Secretariat any treaties they enter into. This was news to me as well, although it certainly makes sense to maintain a central registry of treaties if we are to make it easier for various stakeholders to know exactly which instruments and norms individual countries are bound by.

Given the sheer size of the UN system, which advances the interests of 193 Member States and numbers at least 105,000 personnel (according to the Chief Executives Board for Coordination), it’s surprising that OLA only comprises about 200 staff, more than half of who are female. That said, the department is able to harness legal skills from among a team with a diverse set of backgrounds and outlooks, with approximately 60 nationalities represented. In writing a post to introduce OLA, I must admit that I found it difficult to decide which aspects of its work to include and which to leave out. The relatively small size of the Office belies the vast range of functions and duties it performs in a manner that is telling of its overall efficiency. I am not sure if I have managed to be as efficient myself in writing this first post (hats off to those who have read this far!) but I do hope that it has provided a clear overall impression of OLA’s activities to serve as a backdrop for my next entry.   


The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.