UN chief says UN staff ‘not banned’ from joining anti-racism rallies


Following a row over guidance to UN staff suggesting they should not participate in protests triggered by the police killing of George Floyd, UN’s secretary general, António Guterres clarified that staff were “not banned” from joining anti-racism demonstrations, as long as it was in an “entirely private capacity”.

Guterres insisted that a memo from its ethics board did not mean that staff were required to “remain neutral or impartial in the face of racism”.

The UN’s own special rapporteur on freedom of assembly has been highly critical of the memo sent to UN staffs.

“The position of the United Nations on racism is crystal clear: this scourge violates the charter and debases our core values,” Guterres wrote to staff.

“Every day, in our work across the world, we strive to do our part to promote inclusion, justice, dignity and combat racism in all its manifestations.”

The letter follows guidance, issued late last week, which caused concern inside the UN secretariat after employees were told that as “international civil servants” they should not participate in public demonstrations.

“Participation in public demonstrations in the current circumstances may not be consistent with the independence and impartiality required of us as international civil servants,” said the memo, first reported in Foreign Policy, which was endorsed by Guterres and also cited health concerns during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“In New York City or other locations in which curfews have been imposed, staff members must observe such curfews and similar public orders,” it instructed.

“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 organisation.”

Among those who went public criticising the memo was the special rapporteur on freedom of assembly, Clément Voule who posted a highly critical statement on his office’s website.

However, in a new communication sent personally to staff, Guterres insisted that the ethics panel circular should not be read as a ban.

“To the contrary, 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.”

He added that the recent guidance by the ethics panel “was meant to emphasise the need to balance such activities with one’s best judgment as international civil servants and our official duties”.

While Guterres himself has been outspoken about Floyd’s murder and the wider issue of racism, some UN personnel felt uncomfortable about the initial guidance.

Citing the example of the NFL’s recent U-turn on protest in support of Black Lives Matter, Voule said: “I encourage the UN to allow their staff to publicly join this important and historical movement to end institutional and other forms of racism and violence.”

“To allow their staff to exercise their right to peaceful protest like thousands of others fighting for justice, dignity and equality. Beyond the events which have unfolded in the United States, this is a movement of global proportions taking on global issues,” said Voule. (Source: The Guardian)