Ethical Leadership in International Organizations: Concepts, Narratives, Judgment and Assessment

The Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights at the Faculty of Law, University of Helsinki, is organizing a high-profile international 2-day conference, on 7-8 June 2018, on leadership and ethics in international organizations and global governance. The conference marks the end of Professor Jan Klabbers’ five-year Martti Ahtisaari Chair, an Academy of Finland Professorship devoted to the theme ‘Towards a Credible Ethics for Global Governance’ and focusing on the professional roles of relevant actors.

International organizations were once expected to guarantee the ‘salvation of mankind’, but have increasingly come to be questioned. On the one hand, waves of populism, nationalism and isolationism threaten the stability of the international legal order and the capacity of international organizations to address policy dilemmas. On the other hand, those policy dilemmas keep piling up. The influx of refugees, climate change, the increase in global inequality and poverty – these are only some examples.

Within this context it can be claimed that what is needed is global cooperation and leadership, at a time when the mission and capacities of international organizations may be at risk. And yet, the latter are often accused of corruption, embezzlement, externalities, political capture, mal-functioning, poor performance and so on. International organizations are necessary but, so it seems, they cannot be trusted.

The premise underlying this conference is that one way to respond to the crisis of governance is to go beyond legal responsibility, codes of conduct or effectiveness-type of discourses and focus instead on ethical leadership in international organizations. Within this context, the quest for ethical leadership in international organizations provides a platform for normative and policy reconsiderations.

To what extent can the ethical standing of individuals and organizations provide an answer to the current predicament? And if this is a credible response, then how can ethical leadership be conceptualized, what are the sources of inspiration and finally, how can it be assessed?

The conference aims to address the main proposition via an interdisciplinary approach put into practice through four sessions. The first session provides a conceptual framework through the examination of questions such as the relationship between politics and ethics; individual and organizational ethics; private and public morality and virtuous judgment.  The second session develops a narrative approach through anthropologies of international institutions and units (including their officials) as well as biographical accounts, historical and legal, of international leaders and their teams. The third session places us in the middle of ethical choices and dilemmas by people with first-hand experience. The cases deal with the crusade against the WHO’s series of scandals and incidents; FIFA’s Governance Panel; and the ethical dilemmas while drafting the Global Compacts on migration and refugees. After imagining, narrating and confronting ethical leadership in international organizations, the fourth session addresses the vital question of how to assess and distinguish between good and bad narratives, visions and choices. It includes theoretical discussions on accountability and responsibility as well as more quantitative takes on indicators and their critics.

The workshop purports to become a "laboratory of dilemmas" on ethical leadership, not confined to a theoretical, abstract level but also dealing with concrete cases and policy propositions.

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