How to be an activist U.N. staffer
The democratic fervor spreading across North Africa and the Middle East has reached the U.N.’s New York headquarters, judging from the Facebook and Twitter accounts of some staffers at Turtle Bay. Several U.N. officials have turned to social media in recent weeks to express their enthusiasm for the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Middle ...
The democratic fervor spreading across North Africa and the Middle East has reached the U.N.’s New York headquarters, judging from the Facebook and Twitter accounts of some staffers at Turtle Bay. Several U.N. officials have turned to social media in recent weeks to express their enthusiasm for the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.
The activity, in fact, prompted the U.N. ethics office to issue on Wednesday an internal directive — titled "Note from the Ethics Office: political activity on the part of U.N. staff" — instructing U.N. officials to refrain from overt politicking.
"In recent days, with breaking news coverage of political developments, we have noted an increase in enquiries about the scope of permissible political activity on the part of UN staff," according to the memo, posted by Joan Elise Dubinsky, the director of the U.N.’s ethics office. "We have received many questions on whether staff members may become involved in political activities. This message is intended to help you understand the scope of permitted political activity by staff members as international civil servants."
So here’s a list of basic issues you would need to familiarize yourself with before you unfurl your national flag, head out into the town square, and express your hope for revolutionary change. The quotes are Dubinsky’s; the snarky editorial comment is Turtle Bay‘s.
- Yes, it is true that your "political views are inviolable," but just keep them to yourselves if you think they might embarrass the U.N. in any way. "We ask that you not be involved in any political activity that could reflect adversely on the U.N. or on your independence and impartiality."
- "Although you are all members of civil society and have certain fundamental rights, you should remember that your loyalty as an international civil servant is to the objectives and purposes of the United Nations." The trick here is few U.N. staffers could keep their jobs if they openly criticized U.N. member states, including Egypt and Libya, whose autocratic rule has run contrary to the objectives and purpose of the U.N. Charter.
- Yes, you can join a political party, but be discreet about it: "Conduct yourself at all times in a manner befitting an international civil servant.… You are asked to exercise discretion in your support of a political party or campaign."
- Don’t even think about accepting or soliciting funds, writing articles, or making public speeches or press statements on behalf of the object of your political fervor. Unless, of course, you are a top U.N. official in, say, Ivory Coast, where you get to decide who the winner is in a disputed election.
- If you chose to ignore the above advice, please at least seek "prior approval" to grant interviews, take part in speaking engagements, or participate "in electronic recordings about matters affecting the purpose, activities or interest of the U.N., except where these activities are part of their official duties."
- Yes, you may vote for your preferred candidate in your country’s elections, and even participate in local or civic activities, but only if they don’t "reflect adversely" on your status as an international civil servant. That sounds simple enough, but not so clear in practice. Mohamed ElBaradei has been promoting democratic change in Egypt for the last couple of years — certainly a high-minded civic activity that conforms with the objectives of the U.N. Charter. But I suspect had ElBaradei still been a top international diplomat, he would have been rebuked for challenging Hosni Mubarak, a U.N. member in good standing until a couple of weeks ago.
- "In view of the independence and impartiality that you must maintain as international civil servants, and while retaining the right to vote, you should not participate in political activities such as standing for or holding local or national political office." I wonder if this applies to reelection campaigns for U.N. secretary-generals. I suspect not.
- We’ve already mentioned that overt political speech is verboten. Also, we don’t want to see you "carrying placards or wearing articles of clothing that advocate a certain political point of view." I guess all those Obama buttons everybody was wearing around here in 2008 will be off-limits in 2012. Or maybe not. If the U.S. president endorses the U.N. chief for a second term, perhaps even Ban Ki-moon will be wearing one.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch
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