The International Civil Servant in Theory and Practice: Law, Morality, and Expertise

25 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2015

See all articles by Guy Fiti Sinclair

Guy Fiti Sinclair

Victoria University of Wellington School of Law

Date Written: September 2, 2015


What is the place of international civil servants in international law? How much do they contribute to making the legal norms and institutions that govern states? To what extent does law sustain and constrain their authority? These important and difficult questions are raised, directly and indirectly, by several recent works that examine the life and legacy of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second and arguably most influential Secretary-General of the United Nations. While serving in that capacity during the crucial years of 1953-1961, at the height of the Cold War and decolonization and perhaps the most formative period of UN history, Hammarskjöld was intimately involved in the formulation of several legal innovations that have since become staples of UN activity, including preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping. Yet he has also been accused, both during his lifetime and more recently, of expanding the authority of his own office to the detriment of democratic government. Reflecting on these works, this review essay argues that the authority of international civil servants should be understood and analysed as operating through three distinct yet interconnected modalities of discourse and practice: legal, moral, and expert. By giving due attention to all three modalities, a more accurate picture may be formed of the conditions under which international civil servants are able to govern, and their relationship to international law. Moreover, a comprehensive account of the authority exercised by international civil servants must take account of how they respond to any tensions that may arise between their bases of authority, as well as their shifting relations with other ‘global governors.’

Keywords: international law, international civil servants, international relations, Dag Hammarskjöld, United Nations, international organizations, peacekeeping, legal theory, socio-legal theory, Congo, postcolonial studies

Suggested Citation

Sinclair, Guy Fiti, The International Civil Servant in Theory and Practice: Law, Morality, and Expertise (September 2, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

Guy Fiti Sinclair (Contact Author)

Victoria University of Wellington School of Law ( email )

PO Box 600
Wellington, 6140
New Zealand

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