The U.N. Protest Gag Order Lives On

One staffer has accused the United Nations Development Program of muzzling efforts to protest racism.

The General Assembly Hall of the United Nations
The General Assembly Hall of the United Nations is seen from the floor in New York on May 12, 2006. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

In the summer of 2020, as anti-racism demonstrations spread around the globe in response to the murder of George Floyd, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was facing protests of his own.

U.N. civil servants who wanted to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement were up in arms about instructions from the U.N. ethics office telling personnel to steer clear of public demonstrations, even in their free time. The directive, which was initially endorsed by the U.N. chief, expressly banned participation in the protests.

Guterres then reversed course, assuring U.N. employees at a hastily arranged town hall meeting in June that they could take part, as long as they didn’t wave the U.N. flag. In a letter to staff on June 9, Guterres insisted 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.”

But his statement didn’t put the matter to rest—or give an explicit green light to U.N. staffers to participate in political demonstrations, U.N. officials contend. Staffers at an organization founded to advance fundamental human rights and freedoms now wonder if they can even advocate for those rights, or if they’re going to be gagged to avoid courting public controversy.

On June 22, less than two weeks after Guterres sent the letter, the U.N. Development Program reissued its own gag order. “The international, impartial nature of your role limits your freedom to publicly express views on controversial matters,” the UNDP’s Code of Ethics document, which was revised this year, states. “For example, you cannot take part in political demonstrations, or wear politically-themed clothing or buttons. You may not publicly criticize governments, or run for or hold political office at any level while working for UNDP.”

The internal debate over the U.N. response to the Black Lives Matter movement raises difficult questions about the rights of international civil servants to express support for core U.N. values, including the promotion of equality and human rights, if they are viewed as controversial by member states. It also places the U.N. leadership in the awkward position of urging countries around the world to promote free expression and assembly, while restraining their own staff from exercising those same rights.

The U.N. development agency—which relies on the cooperation of foreign governments to carry out its work—has been among the U.N.’s most risk-averse entities, seeking to avoid offending member states at almost any cost. But the guidance did not sit well with some UNDP staffers, who argued that it didn’t comply with the policy laid out by Guterres.

Niall McCann, an Irish national who works in UNDP’s Brussels office, filed a complaint against UNDP’s administrator and ethics office with the development agency’s internal Office of Audit and Investigations, and he requested an investigation into the matter. The ban on participation in demonstrations, McCann wrote, constituted an “abuse of authority.”

“This assertion directly contradicts the U.N. Secretary General, who specifically commented on this matter, in the context of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protest movement in the United States,” he wrote in the complaint, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy. McCann argued that there was no legal basis for the protest prohibition, insisting that it is not expressly banned by the key directives governing staff conduct: the U.N. Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service or the Staff Regulations and Rules of the United Nations.

He also accused UNDP’s ethics chief, Peter Liria, of seeking to “muzzle UNDP staff standing up against racism.”

To no avail: In late August, the internal investigations office informed McCann that a “formal investigation is not warranted and has closed the case.”

The directives are ambiguous about the rights of staff to engage in peaceful protest. For instance, the standards of conduct states that, “While their personal views remain inviolate, international civil servants do not have the freedom of private persons to take sides or to express their convictions publicly on controversial matters, either individually or as members of a group.”

A UNDP spokesperson said that the purpose of the code of ethics is to “protect the integrity of UNDP as an impartial U.N. agency that upholds the values of the U.N. Charter.”

“Showing support for a human rights or anti-racism and discrimination campaign like Black Lives Matter is not the same as aligning with a specific political entity or adopting a political position,” it added. “UNDP does not forbid staff from participating in peaceful acts of civic engagement.” But the statement does not say whether participating in a Black Lives Matter protest constitutes a peaceful act of civic engagement.

There is a history of civil protest by U.N. officials. In September 2014, then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon marched with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanding curbs on carbon emissions at the People’s Climate March in New York. Ralph Bunche, the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. peace mediator, participated with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1963 March on Washington and joined the late civil rights leader during his historic march for racial equality from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, condemned South Africa’s racist apartheid policies and urged all nations to end economic and military relations with the minority, white-led government.

Under UNDP rules, such actions would likely be off-limits to ordinary staff members.

On July 14, Kevin Waite, an advisor in UNDP’s ethics office, defended the ban on demonstrations, informing McCann by email that there is a difference between “peaceful civic engagement”—which Guterres encouraged—and “political demonstrations.” Waite’s conclusion was subsequently backed by UNDP’s ethics chief, Liria, who also reaffirmed earlier guidance that placed even further restrictions on staff.

“Sometimes a specific public activity may not on its face appear to contradict your independence, impartiality or the interests of the UN, (and in some cases may even seem to further values embraced by the UN),” reads a February memo from UNDP’s ethics office to staff. “You must ask yourself whether the specific activity involves a highly polarized political issue or even a social issue utilized by a political party, government or candidates in the context of election or policy campaigns, or whether an activity has a dual purpose (e.g., one that may be acceptable and the other not). If the answer is yes, participation is likely not appropriate.”

U.N. officials insist that the U.N. chief is trying to balance the need to shield the organization from charges of political meddling in sovereign matters of member states, while providing some political cover for staffers committed to showing support for the human rights and equality of ordinary people.

“The Secretary General’s position is clear: 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,” Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N.’s chief’s top spokesperson, told Foreign Policy Tuesday. “Staff will need to use best judgment in balancing such activities with their responsibilities as international civil servants.”

But the secretary-general’s office also forwarded a statement to Foreign Policy that the UNDP position was consistent with the rest of the U.N.

David Kaye, who served recently as the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said the U.N. has a legitimate interest in dissuading its civil service from engaging in partisan politics. But he said that the UNDP directive was so vague that it would likely have a chilling effect on U.N. employees’ ability to exercise their right to free assembly and expression.

The U.N., he said, “should distinguish between engaging in the local politics of a country versus standing up for fundamental rights.”

The challenge for U.N. employees, meanwhile, is trying to determine what is unacceptable behavior.

“Where is the line? What is a so-called controversial matter?” McCann told Foreign Policy. “In this instance we are talking about something that arose in light of the Black Lives Matter movement. You can’t put a blanket muzzle on people that they can’t take a position on a controversial matter without telling us what is a controversial matter. Is taking a knee a controversial matter? Is attending a silent, candle-lit vigil commemorating George Floyd a controversial matter?”

Update, Oct. 21, 2020: This article was updated to clarify when the UNDP Code of Ethics language was issued.

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