From the U.N. ethics office: Soup kitchens good, free speech bad

Dear U.N. employee: Do you have a life outside the United Nations? Are you involved in any outside activities, studying to get your master’s degree, chairing a local club, or helping out in the family business? That’s swell, we’re all for it. "These are all aspects of our daily lives which make us not only ...

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Monika Graff/Getty Images
Monika Graff/Getty Images
Monika Graff/Getty Images

Dear U.N. employee: Do you have a life outside the United Nations?

Are you involved in any outside activities, studying to get your master's degree, chairing a local club, or helping out in the family business?

That's swell, we're all for it. "These are all aspects of our daily lives which make us not only international civil servants, but fulfilled human beings," assures a recent internal memo to staff by the U.N. Ethics Office.

Dear U.N. employee: Do you have a life outside the United Nations?

Are you involved in any outside activities, studying to get your master’s degree, chairing a local club, or helping out in the family business?

That’s swell, we’re all for it. "These are all aspects of our daily lives which make us not only international civil servants, but fulfilled human beings," assures a recent internal memo to staff by the U.N. Ethics Office.

But there are, of course, limits.

"We have a primary duty to devote our energies to the work of our Organization," it goes on. "As such, it would be improper if we were involved in outside activities that interfered with that duty or were incompatible with the interest of the United Nations, for example running a business that demeans people in any way or employs under age children. On a related note, we may not conduct illegal activities such as selling counterfeit goods."

And on a related, related note: That smoke you see outside Turtle Bay is nothing to be alarmed by — just bureaucrats burning their stores of fake U.N. t-shirts and trucker hats.

To great fanfare, the U.N. Ethics Office was established in 2006 to ensure greater scrutiny on managers, rein in corruption, and protect whistleblowers. In recent weeks, it has begun to circulate good conduct memos to U.N. staff, including a pre-Christmas memo advising U.N. employees how they should respond to an offer of a holiday bottle of gift booze from a U.N. contractor or a foreign delegate.

The office is led by Joan Dubinsky, a former ethics chief at the International Monetary Fund and the British Defense contractor BAE Systems, institutions that have had their own high-profile struggles with ethics.

In its latest memo, the Ethics Office has turned its attention to outside activities, and included a series of cartoon images to illustrate its message.

There’s a picture of a child reading a book and one of a pair of mothers pushing their children on park swings. The images resemble the kind of artwork you’d find in the pages of a kid’s instructional literature (or, more likely, in Microsoft Word’s free collection of stock art). And the memos — which one U.N. insider described as "ethics for tots" — evokes the paternal tone of a school-teacher. And, much like in the classroom, there are a lot of rules.

On delicate extracurricular matters, where the intersection of diplomacy and commerce might provide some conflict of interest, U.N. staff are required to get permission from their superiors.

Engaging in the following activities, for instance, required approval from the ethics office.

  • "Participating in boards, panels committees, experts groups and similar bodies. This includes serving as director, partner, trustee or board member of a commercial or non-commercial business or entity."
  •  "We should also seek advice from the Ethics Office where the organizers are offering to cover any of the meeting costs."

Alright, fair enough. But what about this?

"Making sensitive statements to our local TV station or newspaper."

  • "Making public speeches."
  • "Submitting articles, books or other material for publication."
  • "Taking part in film, theater, radio or television productions. Yes, we need to talk to the Ethics Office before appearing on the Jerry Springer show."

(That last one includes what qualifies as a U.N. Ethics Office joke.)

An organization like the U.N., like any national government or corporation, may have an interest in regulating the public statements of its employees. But when did the ethics office go from champion of whistleblowers to enforcers of acceptable speech?

"As a progressive Organization, the United Nations not only permits but encourages outside activities that are beneficial to the Organization," the memo explains. "This includes activities that contribute to the development of our professional skills and help us foster contacts with private and public bodies, for example workshops and seminars as well as professional dinners and gatherings. We should however exercise the utmost discretion and avoid making any statements during these activities that could reflect adversely on our status as U.N. employees."

Hmm, does that sound progressive?

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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