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The do’s and don’ts of accepting gifts and honours for staff members
09 April 2010 / 11:11

[Dateline: New York | Authors: Ethics Office/Department of Management]

On 14 January 2010, the Under-Secretary-General for Management issued a new administrative instruction ST/AI/2010/1 on “Reporting, retaining and disposing of honours, decorations, favours, gifts or remuneration from governmental and non-governmental sources.”

Staff members are presented with or offered gifts and honours from governmental and non-governmental entities from time to time. While the sources and values of gifts may vary, each staff member has approached these situations with a mixture of ambivalence and confusion.

  • Can he or she accept a bottle of wine from a Member State for the holidays? What if the bottle was very expensive champagne? Is there a difference? 
  • Is a promotional leather bag from a conference organizer an official gift?
  • How about the standard calendar everyone gets at the end of the year? Is that excluded from the prohibition?
  • Aren’t gifts worth $50 or less considered nominal and therefore exempt from this prohibition?
  • To whom should staff disclose and will they get to keep it? If not, what happens to it?
  • What if a staff member is informed that he or she has been selected to receive an honour for something he or she is doing in his or her official capacity?
  • What considerations have to be taken into account in deciding whether he or she can receive this honour or to decline?
  • What if there is money attached to the honour, is it his or her money to keep?
  • What about an honorarium for speaking to a group of local farmers about a staff member’s expert tomato farming skills? Can he or she keep that?

Each situation is different and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.  Generally though, staff members should not accept any honours, decorations, favours, gifts or remuneration that may have a real or perceived influence on their objectivity in carrying out their official duties or that may place them under obligation to the donor.  Such situations may compromise (or be perceived as compromising) their integrity as well as the values and integrity of the Organization.

So while minor gifts of nominal value may be retained by a staff member as an expression of courtesy, (i.e. standard bottle of wine, chocolates, fruit, calendar or a book), an expensive bottle of champagne from a Member State or a Notebook from a conference that a staff member attends in his or her official capacity is not appropriate and remuneration arising from his or her official duties and responsibilities is considered property of the United Nations.

The new administrative instruction describes a set of procedures that emphasizes to staff their obligations and provides guidance to officials whose responsibility it is to manage these situations.  The one constant will be the requirement for all staff members who are presented with or offered any honour, favour, decoration, gift or remuneration to disclose it to their Executive Officer or Chief or Director of Administration, as appropriate.  He or she will evaluate the situation and make a determination as to the best course of action.  A flow chart has been created to help staff understand the process better.  In most cases, staff will likely be authorized to retain the gift but it must be disclosed first.

Over the years, staff members have acted in good faith when confronted with these situations.  Some have politely declined affirming their obligations under the rules, while others have felt that declining would have caused embarrassment and therefore have received and entrusted the gift to their executive or administrative office and more recently to the Ethics Office.  This new administrative instruction will ensure consistency of practice. 

Based on this instruction, the Ethics Office no longer receives gifts but remains available for consultation about the appropriateness of the offer at any stage of the process.  When a situation presents itself where an honour, decoration, favour, gift or remuneration is offered or presented to a staff member from any source, the appropriate response would be to decline with an explanation that it is a requirement under the Organization’s regulations and rules and in accordance with his or her status as an international civil servant.  In situations where a staff member cannot decline, the new instruction lays out the proper procedure to follow to preserve his or her independence and impartiality and enhance public confidence in his or her own integrity and that of the United Nations.