U.N. Reverses Ban on Staff Participation in Anti-Racism Protests

The secretary-general changes course on staffers’ participation in demonstrations against police brutality in the United States, citing a U.N. history of fighting discrimination.

Ralph Bunche (fifth from left in the main row) joins Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 26, 1965. Bunche, who won a Nobel Peace Prize as the United Nations' Middle East mediator, has been cited as an example of the United Nations' history of fighting discrimination.
Ralph Bunche (fifth from left in the main row) joins Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 26, 1965. Bunche, who won a Nobel Peace Prize as the United Nations' Middle East mediator, has been cited as an example of the United Nations' history of fighting discrimination. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

The United Nations instructed its staff members last week not to participate in public demonstrations sweeping the world in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, on the grounds that public displays of support for the protest movement would undermine the world body’s reputation for impartiality, according to a copy of an internal circular the U.N. ethics board sent to U.N. staff last week.

But U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres reversed course on Tuesday, informing U.N. staffers by email that there is “no ban on personal expressions of solidarity or acts of peaceful civic engagement, provided they are carried out in an entirely private capacity.”

Speaking to U.N. staffers at a virtual town hall meeting last week, Guterres had acknowledged that many U.N. colleagues “would like to be more vocal and active” in response to the popular protests against racism and police brutality in New York and beyond, according to a video recording of the event obtained by Foreign Policy. But he said they would have to restrain themselves.

“We are all shocked by the brutality of the murder of George Floyd. … It’s important to recognize that at the center of [this crisis] there is a serious question of racism,” he said. But he cautioned that U.N. staffers’ status as international civil servants placed “limitations” on their freedom to speak out or act.

U.N. workers who wished to express support for the protesters would have to limit their activities to reposting U.N. press releases and social media posts by the U.N. chief and other senior U.N. officials, he said. “There is one thing we can all do, which is to retweet, to spread the U.N. messages that have been issued already in relation to [the protests], and this can be done by everybody and multiply and amplify those messages that are messages against racism, that are messages against police brutality, that are message against inequalities and discrimination,” Guterres said.

But the decision faced pushback among U.N. staffers and independent U.N. human rights advocates, who claimed the restrictions abridged the rights of individuals to free speech and peaceful assembly, which are enshrined in the U.N. Charter and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “While I understand the need to ensure the impartiality of its international civil service, it is clear that internal UN rules cannot override broad international human rights norms applied in every nation,” Clément Voule, the U.N. special rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, said in a statement.

“The issues at the heart of the protests that have unfolded since the killing of George Floyd are the same fundamental issues that the UN has been fighting for since its establishment,” Voule, a Togolese lawyer, wrote. “The UN has been at the forefront of the fight against racism and discrimination. This is the reason why people have taken to the streets and why UN staff should be able to join them.”

The ethics board circular—which ordered U.N. officials to avoid protests and observe curfews in New York City and other American cities—followed weeks of mass demonstrations against police brutality across all 50 states. The protests—triggered by the video of a Minneapolis police officer asphyxiating Floyd with his knee on his neck—have inspired similar ones around the world.

“Participation in public demonstrations in the current circumstances may not be consistent with the independence and impartiality required of us as international civil servants,” according to the circular, which was initially endorsed by Guterres. “Thus, staff members should consider the consequences of participating in public demonstrations given the public health orders during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic to maintain social distancing, to avoid large gatherings and to practice other public health measures that may be incompatible with participation in mass protests.”

The U.N. policy on staff participation in public protests is detailed in a series of staff guidelines and regulations aimed at excluding U.N. officials in political activities. “While staff may have political views, their status as impartial international civil servants never ceases while in service, and expression of a particular political opinion or opinion about a particularly sensitive political matter in public may not be compatible with that status,” according to a 2016 bulletin by the U.N. secretary-general.

“In New York City or other locations in which curfews have been imposed, staff members must observe such curfews and similar public orders,” according to the ethics board circular. “Insofar as some of the protests have given rise to violence and property damage, the risk that a United Nations staff member could be swept up in an uncontrolled demonstration, including facing arrest or detention, could bring substantial disrepute to the Organization.”

On Tuesday, Guterres told staff that the ethics office guidance was not intended to prohibit U.N. staffers from participating in peaceful demonstrations but to “emphasize the need to balance such activities with one’s best judgment as international civil servants and our official duties.” He also released a “rough transcript” of his June 4 town hall address, which he said had highlighted “the plague of racism, prompted by a murderous act of police brutality that has lead to widespread protests in the United States, and now, cities around the world.”

The move comes as the families of victims of police violence, including Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and Philando Castile, on Monday issued a call for the U.N. Human Rights Council to convene a special session to investigate the violent police repression of protests in the United States. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, and hundreds of other rights groups have joined in the appeal.

“I want people across the world and the leaders in the United Nations to see the video of my brother George Floyd, to listen to his cry for help, and I want them to answer his cry,” Philonise Floyd said in a statement. “I appeal to the United Nations to help him. Help me. Help us. Help black men and women in America.”

“It is time the United States face the same scrutiny and judgment it is quick to pass on to other countries,” Jamil Dakwar, the director of the ACLU’s human rights program, added in a statement.

Since its founding in 1945, the U.N. has sought to strike a careful balance between deferring to member states to manage their internal politics and championing the principles of the U.N. Charter, which commits governments to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”

The U.N. Staff Union acknowledged that U.N. staffers need to abide by the principle of the U.N. Charter and comply with the standards of conduct expected of international civil servants. But it also recommended that U.N. workers be granted greater freedom to decide how to respond.

“Around the world, people have poured out into the streets to express their solidarity, reaffirming the fundamental right to life and rejecting senseless violence. Many of us are moved by the desire to take action,” the Staff Union said in a statement. “We trust your good judgment in finding the right balance, in avoiding negative comments and in keeping your statements and posts forward-looking and constructive.”

“We are well placed at the UN to answer these questions, through the required conversations may not be easy. Our unparalleled diversity is our greatest strength,” the union added. “We can be a true engine of change, utilizing our shared knowledge and our shared experiences to foster inclusion and respect diversity.”

It is not the first time that the U.N. has been confronted with the moral dilemma of engaging in peaceful public dissent. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Ralph Bunche, an African American who won a Nobel Peace Prize as the United Nations’ Middle East mediator, marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, and other cities.

In Tuesday’s letter to staff, Guterres highlighted the U.N.’s history of fighting discrimination. “The United Nations has a proud record of fighting racism and all forms of discrimination, from our leading role in the struggle against apartheid to the welcome extended to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Indeed, our own illustrious former colleague — Ralphe Bunche — was the first person of color to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and a front-line figure in the civil rights struggle,” he wrote.

Guterres has been leery of taking steps that might provoke controversy with the United States or other big powers. But he told U.N. staff during the town hall meeting that addressing the issues raised by protesters—including racism, inequality, and discrimination—remained central to U.N. aspirations to meet its own development goals over the coming decades.

Guterres, who opened the meeting with a call for a moment of silence for victims of racism, expressed general support for the protests. “There are grievances, and those grievances have at least the legitimate rights to be expressed in societies, and so demonstrations are something that are perfectly normal. It is our role to ask demonstrators to be peaceful and at the same time to ask authorities to listen to their grievances and for police forces and others to be restrained in the way they handle these situations.”

Police brutality, he added, is simply a symptom of racism and a broader inability to deal with the challenges of managing a diverse society. Guterres urged staffers to reach out to the U.N. leadership in the event that they are subject to racial profiling in New York City, noting that “at the present moment colleagues in certain areas of the city might be stopped or whatever because of a profiling situation.”

Guterres recalled that during previous visits to the United States as the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, his Pakistani chief of staff routinely encountered extra checks at the airport. “He was always selected by the random system of additional security, and I was never selected by the random system of additional security.”

Guterres said the U.N. itself is not immune from charges of discrimination, noting that 60 percent of the jobs in the U.N. chief’s executive office were held by Westerners. He said he has sought to begin an internal debate about the state of racism within the organization and to come up with a plan of action to confront it.

“If racism exists everywhere, racism also exists within the United Nations,” he said. “We need to have within the U.N. an honest conversation on racism.”

Update, June 9, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect the U.N.’s reversal of its prohibition on U.N. staff participation in anti-racism protests.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch