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UN Staff Warned Against Public Comments on the Devastating Conflict in Gaza

Credit: UN Photo/Manuel Elias

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 9 2024 (IPS) - The deadly six-month-old Israeli-Hamas war, which has claimed the lives of more than 32,000 Palestinians in Gaza and over 1,200 in Israel, has sharply divided the world with vociferous protestors on both sides of the conflict.

But the United Nations is no exception with some of the estimated 35,000 staffers—both in New York and UN affiliates worldwide– have been increasingly vocal, mostly on social media, critical of either Israel or Hamas.

As international civil servants, UN staffers are not expected to participate in political protests and demonstrations or express political views in public or against any UN member state.

In June 2020, the UN advised staff members not to participate in the nation-wide public demonstrations in the wake of the controversial police killing of an African-American, George Floyd.

The reason: public displays of support for the protest movement would undermine the world body’s reputation for impartiality.

Credit: UN Today

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

This time around, Guterres has been openly critical of the killings by Hamas, and also more strongly, on the killings of civilians by Israel, while human rights organizations have accused Israel of genocide and using starvation as a weapon of war by cutting off food supplies to Gaza.

In a circular to staffers, titled Guidance on Personal Communications last month, the UN’s Department of Global Communications (DGC), says recent global events, including “the crisis in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, are deeply upsetting and a matter of grave concern to all of us”.

“While it is understandable that many of us feel compelled to share views about the events that are unfolding, including in personal fora such as social media, we must be mindful at all times of our rights and duties as international civil servants, which require us to act independently and impartially.”

“Please take a moment to familiarize yourselves with the policies on the Status, basic rights and duties of United Nations staff members; outside activities; and the guidelines for the personal use of social media. Your attention is also drawn to the “2023 Guidance on Political Activities” issued on iSeek by the UN Ethics Office”.

Accordingly, “we should frame any public communications on the current crisis in the Middle East, as well as other political matters, including through the personal use of social media, in a manner that is consistent with the position of the Organization and the statements of the Secretary-General”.

Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General (ASG) and head of the Department of Public Information, told IPS UN Secretariat staff are international civil servants who are contracted to discharge their functions and regulate their conduct in line with the position of the Secretary -General.

On the current situation in Gaza, he said, Secretary -General Antonio Guterres stood at the borders of Gaza drawing attention to the tragic humanitarian sufferings, while UNICEF representatives spoke publicly about starvation and suffering of innocent civilians.

Hundreds of staffers in U.N. related agencies staff, particularly UNRWA were killed trying to offer food, shelter and medical care for needy children

Sanbar pointed out that U.N staff, including heads of Departments, habitually reflect General Assembly and Security Council resolutions, including those indicating the “inalienable rights of the Palestinian people”.

Discussing pressing issues with the staff, discreet internal consultation and creative teamwork would help, said Sanbar, who served under five different Secretaries-General.

An Associate Press (AP) story last January, cited the Geneva-based advocacy group UN Watch, reporting that a deputy chief of UN Women’s peace and security office, had endorsed 153 posts on social media since Hamas ’ Oct. 7 attacks in southern Israel that exposed her partisan views about the war in Gaza.

In a letter to staffers on UN Day 24 October last year, Guterres said the UN Day comes at a time of sorrow and anxiety for everyone. The situation in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the wider region is on the brink, “and we are all fearful of what the next days and weeks will bring.”

“The conflict is marked by immense human suffering and heartache. I know many of us have family, friends and loved ones in the region and are experiencing this tragedy in a very personal way,” he added.

“We are all devastated and horrified by the situation of our staff in Gaza. At least 35 of our UNRWA colleagues have been killed and many more injured. Sadly, that number continues to rise. We mourn those we have lost and send our deepest condolences to their families and friends. As I told the Security Council today, I owe their families the condemnation of these and many other similar killings”.

Meanwhile, the basic rights and duties of United Nations staff members are governed by the following rules and regulations:

Regulation 1.1: Staff members shall make the following written declaration witnessed by the Secretary-General or his or her authorized representative: “I solemnly declare and promise to exercise in all loyalty, discretion and conscience the functions entrusted to me as an international civil servant of the United Nations, to discharge these functions and regulate my conduct with the interests of the United Nations only in view, and not to seek or accept instructions in regard to the performance of my duties from any Government or other source external to the Organization.

“I also solemnly declare and promise to respect the obligations incumbent upon me as set out in the Staff Regulations and Rules.”

Regulation 1.2: In the performance of their duties staff members shall neither seek nor accept instructions from any Government or from any other source external to the Organization.

While staff members’ personal views and convictions, including their political and religious convictions, remain inviolable, staff members shall ensure that those views and convictions do not adversely affect their official duties or the interests of the United Nations.

They shall conduct themselves at all times in a manner befitting their status as international civil servants and shall not engage in any activity that is incompatible with the proper discharge of their duties with the United Nations.

They shall avoid any action and, in particular, any kind of public pronouncement that may adversely reflect on their status, or on the integrity, independence and impartiality that are required by that status.

Staff members may exercise the right to vote but shall ensure that their participation in any political activity is consistent with, and does not reflect adversely upon, the independence and impartiality required by their status as international civil servants.

Conflict of interest Regulation:

A conflict of interest occurs when, by act or omission, a staff member’s personal interests interfere with the performance of his or her official duties and responsibilities or with the integrity, independence and impartiality required by the staff member’s status as an international civil servant.

When an actual or possible conflict of interest does arise, the conflict shall be disclosed by staff members to their head of office, mitigated by the Organization and resolved in favour of the interests of the Organization.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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