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  • Writer's pictureConstantine Mortopoulos

Codes of Conduct in International and Humanitarian Organizations: Velvet Defence or Rusty Scissors?

Having worked in NATO, with the UN system and the most prestigious Humanitarian Organization in the world, I can safely say that I have seen and heard of several systems of “discipline enforcement”, from the unsolicited lambasting “empty your drawers, leave your laptop open” to the lately trendy Ombudsperson services, which is frequently the same blade with a fancier hilt.

Not that there are not any passionate professionals out there who are willing to contest the managerial authority (even the authority that brings food to their table) and shield the employee with pathos as Ombudspersons or Investigators.

Not that there are not any culpable employees among humanitarian workers or IO staff whose actions require dismissal or an early end of contract.

I am certain the humanitarian world and the IO system has many capable and knowledgeable officers covering the field of discipline, code of conduct respect and Human Resources Law & Policy.

As I am also certain that the same world and the same system have a frenzy personnel rotation rhythm. The hardship of certain field missions, the underpaying and instability of some humanitarian NGOs and the ambition of certain colleagues to use their current post as a step towards the next better-paying, more prestigious, more stable, desk-based job, result in a recruiting routine where the screening is not as meticulous as the responsibility of the post requires.

And, on the other hand, -let’s be honest- the managers in some units, sectors and directorates sometimes acquire private sector omnipotence. This is, assumingly, a price paid when the humanitarian organizations turned from passion-driven volunteer-based entities into business-like organizations with assets, balance sheets, MEAL mechanisms, donor reporting procedures etc[1].

Nowadays a Humanitarian Manager may be closer to a Bank Manager more than ever.

Sometimes they may fire and hire at will, exactly like a private-sector CEO, just because they can. The only difference is that humanitarian and IO managers act as CEOs with other people’s donations and money coming from states.

The intense rotation of persons -some of who may indeed be unsuitable for the ethics of the organization-, the subjectivity or reluctance of the Ombuds and Discipline Officers to confront the hand that feeds by fighting for and acquitting the innocent, and the private sector mentality (which can be indeed scary sometimes) are thus the three factors that may well lead an innocent person before the crosshair of the institutional Code of Conduct lawn mower.

And then, as in every other work environment, there may be nepotism, favouritism, opposing ambitions, personal passions, feuds, emotional misfitting, bad relations, arguing and injustice - as there may be not any of those.

The infamous so-called “Oxfam Scandal” of 2018[2], which flooded the entire humanitarian sector, shook the foundations of the NGO establishment; not just because some humanitarian officers and workers acted in an illicit (yet outside jurisdiction most of the times) and irresponsible manner, but rather because it was understood by the media and the donor networks that the humanitarian emperor’s clothes were made of thin air.

There seemed to be absolutely no mechanisms to safely report and investigate harassment, racism, sexism, discrimination and misconduct in most NGOs, and the donors’ funds were sometimes used as coins to purchase sex from people in need.

The immediate reaction of almost all NGOs and humanitarian organizations, as well as several IOs, such as the Alliance and the UN system, was to rush and establish mechanisms of investigation and ombuds resolution procedures for such cases -sometimes overnight- while at the same time several locally hired employees on the field filled claims or complaints against co-workers, supervisors, or international staff.

This hurried automatic alert brought many new officers into the humanitarian world, as well as the collective realization that these mechanisms would have to operate both internally (for complaints between workers of the organization) as well as externally (for actions of the employees toward beneficiaries or the local population).

Hence, there was an unprecedented influx of former industry investigators, former police officers, gendarmerie etc into the IOs and the Humanitarian NGOs, who forcefully amalgamated into bodies bringing justice and proving that the humanitarian sector does not only advocate human rights but also applies them within.

Sometimes this approach was successful, sometimes it turned into an internal Spanish inquisition.


Fast forwarding to the present, I have personal knowledge of some organizations which have accumulated piles over piles of cases, and several “suspects” are waiting for their hearings for two or three years, while -at best- kept away from their mission, without a salary, pending hearing.

At the same time, these “parked” employees cannot apply for a new job in the humanitarian sector or the relevant IOs of the UN and EU systems, simply because the former/current employer will report the truth to the new potential supervisor: “they are accused of misconduct”.

I will not extent the case to examples of organizations I have personally worked on, but since the reader may well be an employee in a humanitarian NGO or an IO, I would simply evoke their own experience: how many times have you heard of an employee who won a case over their supervisor?

The same question, even if it was the employee who made the complaint?

All this brings us before the work I and my colleagues in Greece, Geneva, Brussels, Strasbourg, and Zurich do.


In our boutique Law Firm in the city of Thessaloniki, we hear your case, and we help you cross the thorny path of ombuds mediation, internal investigation, and institutional hearing procedures, should you find yourself in the demanding position to defend yourself against an unfair or excessive attack from your organization.

We have been doing a similar work with employees of the film and the franchise industries in Greece and the Balkans.

Discussing with your Union, studying the regulatory frame of your organization and the local legislation, we provide you with the best solution possible.

In other cases, where an International Lawyer is appropriate, such as in the UNRWA Dispute Tribunal, we directly represent our client before the Court.

If the case must be brought before a labour court or a special committee, we operate through our local partners.

We usually work on your case after a brief series of teleconference meetings that help us understand the situation, and we can be there, by your side, in 24 hours or less.

In these cases, you must not stand alone.

Remember that you are entitled to legal protection wherever you are.

If you are a Humanitarian Worker, you need a Humanitarian Lawyer.

[1] Consult to see what former and current employees say about several prestigious humanitarian organizations. [2]

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