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United Nations - Office of Legal Affairs
Activities of the Legal Counsel of the United Nations

Legal Counsel holds OLA Town Hall

14 September 2017

On 14 September 2017, the United Nations Legal Counsel, Mr. Serpa Soares, convened the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) for a Town Hall meeting. Colleagues from OLA's Vienna-based International Trade Law Division participated via video link.

As he embarks on his fifth year in office, Mr. Serpa Soares recalled his vision for the Office of Legal Affairs. OLA management and staff should understand the Office as one integral part of the Secretariat and the wider UN System and perform their duties thinking beyond their respective units. He commended his Heads of Unit and stated that he has full confidence in their leadership. Mr. Serpa Soares expressed his deep gratitude to OLA staff for their commitment to the Office and the United Nations and for the consistently high quality of their work. The priority of all of OLA's activities has always been and will remain the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He was particularly proud of the fact that OLA staff fully understood the delicate nature of their work and the importance of discretion and confidentiality. OLA never "leaks" anything to the press or outside entities. Mr. Serpa Soares reminded staff that OLA plays an important role in a predominantly political Organization. Against this background it is essential that staff remain sensitive to the political environment when preparing legal advice. The Legal Counsel welcomed the recent admission of OLA to the Secretary-General's Executive Committee.

Mr. Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the Legal Counsel, at the 2017 OLA Town Hall
Mr. Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, at the 2017 OLA Town Hall

Mr. Serpa Soares then briefly touched upon the Secretary-General's reform agenda. Since taking office on 1 January 2017, Secretary-General Guterres has launched comprehensive reform projects on three of the main pillars of the United Nations: development, management and peace and security. Mr. Serpa Soares encouraged staff to watch the Secretary-General's Town Hall of 26 July 2017 - available on iSeek - in the event that they did not get a chance to attend. OLA will not be at the centre of those reform projects but the Legal Counsel would remain involved and engaged in the discussions in the coming months which are of crucial importance for those reforms.

Against the background of those reform projects, Mr. Serpa Soares briefed staff on new developments in OLA. In addition to explaining the state of play with regard to a number of senior appointments in OLA, the Legal Counsel focused on two issues: mobility and gender parity. Mr. Serpa Soares confirmed that he remained a strong supporter of the concept of mobility in general. He encouraged staff to try and move between OLA line units and to and from our field operations. Embracing mobility on a voluntary basis would greatly benefit the careers of OLA staff in the long run. Mobility turned out to be a topical issue on which OLA staff had many questions, comments and suggestions. Mr. Serpa Soares then spoke about the important topic of gender mainstreaming and gender parity. He stated that the recently adopted new gender parity strategy of the Secretary-General would be faithfully implemented in OLA and encouraged staff to familiarize themselves with the strategy which had been circulated to all staff. Moreover, OLA would continue its excellent cooperation with UN Women to further advance gender mainstreaming. OLA had made great strides with regard to gender mainstreaming and was already almost at a 50/50 rate with respect to gender parity. Following a request at the Town Hall meeting, OLA's current statistical data on gender parity and geographical representation at all levels were provided to staff after the meeting. In this connection, Mr. Serpa Soares emphasized the importance that he placed on linguistic diversity and multilingualism in OLA.

Supported by his Heads of Unit, the Legal Counsel then recalled selected topical issues that OLA was confronted with in 2016/2017. The issue of the claims resulting from the cholera outbreak in Haiti was mentioned as well as OLA's contribution in the struggle to combat the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA). The Legal Counsel briefed on important missions, including in particular those to the Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, Latin America, and on upcoming travel to China and the Netherlands. He also mentioned OLA's support for the June 2017 Ocean Conference, the new "whistleblower protection " policy, the upcoming 2017 Treaty Event, the events on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of UNCITRAL in July 2017, the upcoming events on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the International Law Commission and the state of play with respect to the preparation of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Given the breadth of OLA's work, Mr. Serpa Soares encouraged the various units to provide informational briefings on their work to OLA.

The Town Hall ended with some 30 minutes of questions and answers. OLA staff took the opportunity to ask the Legal Counsel and his Heads of Unit questions on a wide variety of management, administrative and substantive issues or offered thoughts, suggestions and comments thereon.