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Memoirs of UN Secretaries-General: Eyes on the Spies

Published on 10 August 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Some of the distinguished participants in Diplo’s course on multilateral diplomacy believe in the magic of figures. They deem that under normal circumstances, rebus sic stantibus, Article 100 of the United Nations Charter should have contents of paramount importance. Why? Because ‘100’ is a very prominent and visible figure!  Admittedly 100 is a very impressive measure of achievement: 100 years of age, 100 selections in the national team, 100 goals scored in Brazil, 100 billion dollars. They argue that, in their infinite wisdom, the drafters of the Charter deliberately put an important provision into Article 100 because it is a figure easy to remember.

Personally, I think it just a coincidence that Article 100 contains a reminder addressed simultaneously to member states and to the staff of the United Nations from top to bottom. But I do not want to discourage youthful interpretations of the old Charter.

As I suppose that I have made you curious, I reproduce below the easy-to-remember 100th Article of the UN Charter.

1. In the performance of their duties the Secretary-General and the staff shall not seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organization. They shall refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the Organization.

2. Each Member of the United Nations undertakes to respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.

In other words, doing otherwise is not only politically incorrect, but blatantly illegal. Easier said than done!

I have not heard Secretaries-General in office complaining about their staff taking instructions from specific national governments. Let alone from intelligence agencies, or better said other authorities external to the United Nations! As the official reports of the Secretaries-General do not help much in shedding light on this matter, let us call again their memoirs.

After the Buddhist discretion and optimism of U Thant – who seemingly believed in the reincarnation of the Cold War into a convergence of two systems – here comes the fourth Secretary General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim, who, as he confessed in his own book  [i] saw ‘blocs’ not only at the world stage, but also in his own fief:

Relationship between Westerns and Eastern bloc staff members in the Secretariat, especially from the two super-powers, inevitably exhibited a degree of suspicion, due to the Soviet policy of only seconding personnel for limited periods (…..) we had various brushes with the FBI, who were always monitoring the activities of these Soviet members of the Secretariat should they appear to be taking advantage of their residence in new York for other purposes. (p. 49)

Kurt Waldheim’s story is embellished with names.

The most remarkable episode involved Arkadiev Shevchenko, the most senior Soviet national in the UN Secretariat, who was Under Secretary General for Security Council Affairs. (…..) He had always seemed to me a staunch supporter of Soviet interests in the United Nations but he had, as his recently published memories make clear, established contacts with the American CIA over a considerable period of time.

His defection in the United States, in April 1978, ‘caused a substantial furore and involved the United Nations in considerable complications’. No wonder! Practically, an Under Secretary General cheated twice his faithful UN and its Article 100, if you concede this indecent matrimonial analogy!

The authority of the easy-to-remember Article 100 of the UN Charter is depicted quite convincingly by the next Secretary General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, too:[ii]

The malevolent influence of the Cold War extended into the Secretariat. Certain influential members of the U.S. Congress, frequently inspired by the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation, acted as if UN headquarters served mainly as an outpost for the KGB. At the insistence of the Congress, the U.S. government imposed severe restrictions on the travel of Secretariat members who were Soviet Bloc nationals.

The Soviet Union, it must be added, provided an unhappy catalyst for some U.S. actions. While I had no way of knowing which Soviet staff members were from the KGB, it was quite apparent that a number of them did not devote all their time to Secretariat duties. (…..) As a result, and to their understandable frustration, the Soviet nationals in my office were excluded from sensitive functions. (pp. 7-8).

Frailty, thy name is Article 100!

I do not want to confuse my young colleagues who study UN diplomacy about the contents of that Article and overestimate the significance of the few deviations from its letter. Moreover, they are right, indeed: the number of the article we have just depicted is easy to remember. Not its content!

And, by all means, reading Memoirs of United Nations Secretaries-General is almost as rewarding as it is taking Diplo’s courses on multilateral diplomacy.



[i] Waldheim K (1983) In the Eye of the Storm, The Memoirs of Kurt Waldheim. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

[ii] de Cuéllar JP (1997) Pilgrimage for Peace. A Secretary-General’s Memoir. St Martin’s Press, New York.


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