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Activities of the Legal Counsel of the United Nations

Message from the Legal Counsel on the 75th anniversary of the Office of Legal Affairs

13 February 2021

New York, NY

Today is a special day for our Office: on this very day, 75 years ago, the Office of Legal Affairs was established as the "Legal Department" at the 31st plenary meeting of the first session of the General Assembly, held at Methodist Central Hall in London, through the adoption of Resolution 13(I) of 13 February 1946. Obviously, the Assembly deemed it important to have a Legal Department from the very start of the Secretariat - Resolution 13(I) was the first resolution passed by the General Assembly in the history of the United Nations on the organization of the Secretariat.

Out of the 8 departments created as part of the administrative structure of the Secretariat, guided by resolution 13(I) and as set up by the first Secretary-General, Mr. Trygve Lie of Norway, the Legal Department was the smallest, initially comprised of 42 individuals. In 1946, the Legal Department consisted of the Office of the Assistant Secretary-General, the Division of General Legal Problems, the Division for the Development and Codification of International Law, and the Division of Immunities and Registration of Treaties.

Mr. Ivan Kerno, a Slovak lawyer and diplomat, was appointed as "Assistant Secretary-General in charge of the Legal Department", the position which today is known as the United Nations Legal Counsel. Mr. Kerno, born in 1891, was a delegate for Czechoslovakia, participated in the drafting of the Charter of the United Nations and the preparation of Resolution 13(I) and had gathered experience as an international civil servant as a member of the Cabinet of the Secretary-General of the League of Nations from 1930 to 1933. He served until 1952 when he was replaced by Constantin Stavropoulos of Greece. Stavropoulos became Under-Secretary-General when the Legal Department was re-organized into the Office of Legal Affairs in 1954 by then Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.

Over the years, the Secretariat has undergone many structural changes, reflecting the dynamic needs of the Organization. Through all of these changes, the mission and mandate of the Office of Legal Affairs remained remarkably steady. We have always been, and we still are the central legal service of the Organization. Since 1946!

On this special day, I pay tribute to my predecessors and all the women and men who have served this Office with pride, honour and distinction. And I wish to express my sincere gratitude to all of you, dear colleagues, who are serving and carrying this Office today. I want to thank you for your loyal commitment, dedication, professionalism, and for your hard work without which this Office would not have acquired the respect and prestige that it enjoys throughout the UN System and beyond.

For your information, I am attaching resolution 13(I) of 13 February 1946 and Secretary-General's bulletin 2021/1 of 18 January 2021 on the Organization of the Office of Legal Affairs.
Happy Birthday, OLA!!!

Warm regards,
Miguel de Serpa Soares