The United Nations and the Law Behind the “Stuff that Makes Headlines” by Caroline Armstrong Hall (F’20)

by cpinkerton
Apr 08

In my previous post describing the general work of the United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, I noted the vast range of functions and duties across its divisions and the overall efficiency of the Office’s operations. The Office of the Legal Counsel (OLC), the division in which I was able to undertake an internship thanks to financial support provided by the Institute for Global Leadership, is no exception. In fact, its staff tend to address matters of even greater temporal and political sensitivity, as recognized by the Legal Counsel of the United Nations when he described their work as covering “usually the stuff that makes headlines” in a recent interview with the Asian Business Law Journal.

Another feature of OLC’s operations that it shares with some of its sister divisions from the Office of Legal Affairs is the sheer breadth of subject-matter expertise. My supervisors have all been incredibly well-versed in various subfields of public international law, ranging from the law of international organizations and of peacekeeping operations to international human rights and humanitarian law. With a remarkably flexible manner of distributing work among the team, OLC hones its staff’s expertise across different subject-matter areas simultaneously. Despite being at the bottom of the proverbial food chain (though I was never treated as anything other than an equal by my colleagues) and having fewer years of experience working across these fields of international law, interns are kept on their toes in exactly the same way. The result is a challenging but very intellectually-rewarding experience, offering unique opportunities to cultivate a nuanced understanding of the practical operation of international law in different areas in which it is rapidly evolving. To give a rough indication of some of the issues OLC works on, I have selected three projects I assisted with from as diverse a range of topics as possible. 

The first of these tasks, carried out in a spirit of cooperation with judicial mechanisms for the administration of justice, straddled two key areas of OLC work: the privileges and immunities, and the law of peacekeeping operations. The UN and its property, assets and officials are immune from legal process (a formal notice by which a court obtains jurisdiction over a person or property, for example to compel them to appear before the court as a defendant or a witness) in accordance with the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations. At the same time, the UN has an obligation to cooperate with the appropriate authorities of Member States to facilitate the proper administration of justice and may waive the immunity of UN property and assets to do so. What is more, the Secretary-General has the right and duty to waive the immunity of any official in any case where the immunity would impede the course of justice and can be waived without prejudice to the interests of the Organization, or the safety or security of any persons. It falls to the Legal Counsel, assisted by OLC, to make this assessment, as I discovered upon arriving in the Office soon after a court requested the Organization to waive the immunity of a former official from one of the UN’s many peacekeeping missions and of hundreds of documents from the same mission. The court in question wanted to use information contained in the documents as evidence in criminal proceedings, and also wanted the individual in question to testify as a witness. OLC processes innumerable requests of this kind every year, enabling the Organization to make an effective contribution to the administration of justice in various jurisdictions while safeguarding the security and safety of persons who would find themselves in danger if sensitive information were unduly disclosed. 

OLC also cooperates with courts and tribunals in other ways. One of its oldest partnerships is with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or the “World Court”, which is located in The Hague and to which States bring disputes for peaceful adjudication. As liaison to the ICJ, one of OLC’s duties is to facilitate the annual visit of the President of the ICJ and a delegation of Judges to the UN Headquarters in New York, to report on the Court’s work to Members of the Organization. In assisting with the delegation’s visit, I had the rare opportunity to sit in on a closed meeting of the Security Council, during which the Members of the Council had an exchange of views with Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, President of the ICJ.

Finally, OLC’s work doesn’t just support the operations of peacekeeping missions, organs of the UN (such as the ICJ) and other entities within the UN family; it also contributes to the maintenance of appropriate conditions for diplomats to represent their countries at meetings held at UN Headquarters in New York. It does this by serving as the focal point in the Secretariat for developments relating to the Committee on Relations with the Host Country. Member States can raise questions or concerns in this Committee on the United States’ fulfillment of its duties as host country of the UN Headquarters, which are set out in a binding agreement it concluded with the Organization in 1947. During my internship, I assisted with preparations and reporting for three of the five meetings held by the Committee this year. As explained in the ensuing report that it adopted on October 29th 2019, representatives of the delegations of China, Cuba, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Russia and Syria raised concerns about the denial or delayed issuance of visas and/or the imposition of travel restrictions on members of their delegation by the host country. The observation of Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel on “stuff that makes headlines” that I mentioned above certainly applies this case, as some articles in the press reveal. In responding to the statements by the affected diplomats that they had been unduly subjected to these measures because of the strained relations between the countries they represent and the United States, the Legal Counsel reaffirmed important aspects of the Headquarters Agreement before the Committee, such as there being “no room for the application of measures based on reciprocity in the treatment accorded to Permanent Missions accredited to the United Nations in New York.” He further assured the delegates that his Office would continue to “engage with the host country authorities at a high level to convey [the Secretary-General and the Secretariat’s] legal position and seek an appropriate resolution”.

These diplomatic engagements based on established rules of the international order are frequently carried out by OLC, but this is largely done out of the public eye owing to the sensitivity of the matters it deals with. Nevertheless, they are essential to maintaining open channels of communication so that solutions which fully respect established norms at the global level can be found—all the more so when there are significant challenges to the creation of new norms.


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