Protecting the United Nations for over 70 years

For the first half-century of its existence, the United Nations felt protected by its flag and the reality that it was a neutral, benevolent actor in world events. If United Nations personnel were directly targeted, it was generally viewed as an isolated event.

In the early 1990s, the security environment for the United Nations changed and became more threatening. There was a rise in the number of deaths and injuries to personnel as a result of malicious acts. The mandate of the United Nations also evolved, resulting in a larger number of United Nations personnel, notably from the humanitarian agencies, being deployed on potentially hazardous missions.

At the same time, peacekeeping missions were being established in areas at war or in situations of high risk. Increasingly, humanitarian personnel were being deployed alongside peacekeeping military units in integrated multidisciplinary missions.

An evolving security management system

The UN’s security management system was designed for the operational requirements which existed in the UN’s early days. By the 1990s, the system was no longer able to fulfill its responsibilities adequately, despite the best efforts and dedication of all those involved. To allow the United Nations to meet new demands in a changing environment, the General Assembly authorized an increase in the staff of the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD), primarily in the field.

In 2001, the General Assembly authorized the creation of a full-time United Nations Security Coordinator at the level of Assistant Secretary-General. By 2002, the number of professional security officer posts in the field numbered 100 Professional and 200 locally-recruited posts.

​The United Nations Security Coordinator oversaw the activities of the UN field security management system and was a senior official appointed by the Secretary-General. The Office was responsible for all policy and procedural matters related to security; ensuring a coherent response by the United Nations to any emergency situation; coordinating, planning and implementing inter-agency security programmes and acting as the focal point for inter-agency cooperation concerning all security matters and, on behalf of the Secretary-General, taking all decisions related to the relocation/evacuation of personnel and their eligible dependents from very insecure areas.

In addition to UNSECOORD, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) had in place its own separate security structure for civilian personnel in UN peacekeeping operations. Political missions of the Department of Political Affairs that were administratively backstopped by DPKO remained under the UN field security management system.

Each of the major UN locations around the world had their own Security and Safety Services which operated independently from the UN security management system and from any central direction.

The Security and Safety Service (SSS) was first established at UN Headquarters in 1948. For decades, SSS in New York and at seven other Secretariat headquarters locations around the world (Geneva, Vienna, Nairobi, Bangkok, Beirut, Addis Ababa and Santiago), operated independently of each other and had no common governance structure. Their role was to provide security and safety for headquarters personnel, premises and operations at those locations, as well to protect delegates and visitors to the premises and provide personal security details for senior United Nations officials and visiting dignitaries.

Between 2002 and 2003, efforts were made by the United Nations Security Coordinator to professionalize the Organization’s security for its personnel through improved recruitment and training, and to institutionalize security coordination among United Nations agencies, Funds, and Programmes through the establishment of an Inter-Agency Security Management Network (IASMN). However, security structures in PKOs and SPMs, as well as  in SSS locationscontinued to function as separate entities to the structure in place for the field.

In early August 2003, independent security experts carried out an analysis of the UN security management system and concluded that the development and implementation of an overall security governance and accountability framework, including Headquarters, humanitarian and development personnel and civilian personnel in peacekeeping missions would lead to a strengthened and unified security management system.

The Ahtisaari panel

Despite the growing security concerns and the efforts to address them the UN Headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad was attacked on 19 August 2003, which came as a devastating shock. The attack, carried out by a suicide bomber driving a truck filled with explosives, killed 22 United Nations personneland visitors , including SRSGT De Mello,and injured more than 150 people.

The attack was the first significant and targeted attack against the United Nations calling to attention the limited coordination and cohesion of security provisions for UN staff and permises globally.  The attacks led to an urgent second review of the security system by the Independent Panel on the Safety and Security of United Nations Personnel, known as the Ahtisaari panel.

 “The United Nations could, in theory, be the target of attacks anywhere at any time, from Baghdad to Kabul, Nairobi, Jakarta, Geneva or New York. There are no indications that the perpetrators of the attacks in Baghdad would refrain from attacking other UN targets worldwide.” – Ahtisaari Panel report.

The Ahtisaari panel called for a new, drastically revised security strategy for the United Nations. The panel recommended that the core elements of the new strategy include clear articulation of the responsibilities of the United Nations to ensure the security of its personnel; the establishment of professional assessment tools for the analysis of threat and riss for United Nations operations worldwide; a robust security management system with adequate disciplinary measures to counter non-compliance; accountability at all managerial levels for the implementation of security regulations; and significant increases in resources to develop and maintain the necessary security infrastructure.

UNDSS is born

A concerted effort was subsequently made across the United Nations system to overhaul and improve staff security arrangements. In 2004, a radical proposal for strengthening and unifying the United Nations security management system was presented to the 59th session of the General Assembly in Report A/59/365 of 11 October 2004.

This resulted in the adoption of General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/59/276 December 2004) that created the Department of Safety and Security which merged the security management component of the Office of the United Nations Security Coordinator (UNSECOORD) and  the Security and Safety Services (SSS) at Headquarters and at Offices away from Headquarters, (including the regional commissions),.

Furthermore, the Resolution mandated that the new Department be headed by a senior UN official at the rank of Under-Secretary-General for a non-renewable term of five years. The General Assembly also adopted measures to reinforce security operations in all locations and decided to establish a unified capacity for policy, standards, coordination, communications, compliance and threat and risk assessment.

The United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) was formally established on 1 January 2005.