New documents reveal high-level UN policy laying down soft language on Ukraine

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New documents from the United Nations have shown that a decision to avoid the word ‘invasion’ and to ask staff to tone down their language around the war in Ukraine came from above shortly after Moscow sent in its army to try to take control of Ukraine. .

As revealed by The Irish TimesOn Monday, the UN’s Department of Global Communications emailed a staff mailing list asking employees not to use “war” or “invasion” when referring to Ukraine, and to use rather “conflict” or “military offensive”.

That order was hastily rescinded on Tuesday morning Brussels time as new UN-wide guidelines were issued, according to another internal email seen by The Irish Times, while a door- The organization’s word denied that the original email represented the “official position” of the organization.

However, UN staff said Monday’s email was just the latest and most explicit instruction in a series urging them to tone down their rhetoric about the invasion or not talk about it, as the international organization strives to balance political sensitivities at a time. while Russia, a powerful member state, is forcefully suppressing those who describe its war of aggression as such at home.

Emails to staff seen by The Irish Times showed senior officials and communications staff moved quickly to try to control how staff portrayed the invasion on social media.

In addition, “key messages” written and provided to senior managers and spokespersons to advise them of the terms to use when speaking to the media included the terms “conflict” and “military offensive” and did not use “war” or “invasion”. “, according to documents from February 26 and March 6.

These sentences were drafted by a crisis communications team within the UN Communications Group, a body that coordinates communications for the entire global organization, before being distributed to UN branches, according to the documents.

The decision not to use the word “invasion” came from above, according to an email from a senior official with the Office of External Relations and the United Nations Development Program for Advocacy in New York who explained colleagues how to communicate on February 25.

“The SG has decided to use the phrase ‘military operations’ (no invasion or incursion),” the email reads, using an abbreviation to refer to the UN secretary-general. , António Guterres, and his office (SG).

Asked for comment, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said: “From the first moment of this war, the Secretary General was unequivocal. And every day since he focused on stopping the war, rescuing civilians and getting into Ukraine, he was in desperate need of life-saving humanitarian aid.

He pointed to Mr. Guterres’ statements in which the UN chief said: “President Putin, stop your troops from attacking Ukraine” and “In the name of humanity, do not allow Europe to begin.” what could be the worst war since the turn of the century.”

The context

Staff communications are strictly regulated at the UN. Employees must agree on joining the agency not to make public statements that could affect “the independence and impartiality required by their status as international civil servants”, according to a staff handbook which states that Disciplinary procedures can be used if they do not comply with the instructions of their supervisors.

Staff who spoke to the Irish Times on condition of anonymity explained that a series of instructions warning against mentioning the invasion of Ukraine on social media had been distributed to large lists of staff broadcast from the morning of the invasion, culminating in the Monday email which was understood by those who received it to constitute a ban on the use of the words “war” and “invasion” by their superiors .

“We were really shocked when we received it,” a UN official told The Irish Times, speaking on condition of anonymity due to a ban on speaking to the media.

“That’s the same time you get 15 years in Russia for saying the exact same words. We were amazed. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

Another employee described the policy as part of a long-standing trend to withhold language for fear of upsetting member states.

“It’s really heartbreaking when you’re a UN staff member to be continually and endlessly told that you can’t say a single thing about ‘controversial issues’, such as mass murder, mopping up ethnicity or genocide. . . in case it sounds like ‘criticism of a member state’, the official said.

The way the email is distributed reflects the typical way instructions from higher levels of the UN are passed through the organization’s network of regional offices, twigs and programmes, staff members said.

A timeline of communications

On the morning of the February 24 invasion, United Nations Development Program (UNDP) staff received an email per communication telling them to “refrain from engaging in sensitive matters on your personal accounts social media” and reminding them of UN social media. Politics.

On February 25, UNDP staff received an email from a senior UNDP official in New York, the Deputy Assistant Administrator and Deputy Director of the Office of External Relations and Advocacy.

The email conveyed the “latest updates from the UNCG”, a reference to the UN’s pan-organizational communications group, thanking a senior communications official for providing the latest instructions.

“The SG has decided to use the phrase ‘Military Operations’ (no invasion or incursion),” the email reads, using an acronym used to refer to the Secretary General of the UN (SG) António Guterres or his office.

On February 26, a “key messages” document was sent to senior UN officials internationally by Senior Official Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs. peace, according to The Irish Times. Seen by The Irish Times, the document provided phrases to be “used by UN directors and spokespersons when speaking to the media”.

He used the terms “military offensive” and “conflict” to describe the situation, as well as “crisis” and “hostilities”. He did not use the word “invasion”. He used the word ‘war’ to mean ‘an information war is going on’.

As examples of key phrases to use when addressing the media, the document gave: “The military offensive of the Russian Federation is a violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine” and “This conflict must stop now. We must give peace a chance.

The document said it was produced by the “UNCG Crisis Communications Cell.” . . on the basis of information received from the entire United Nations system”. The UN website describes the UNCG as the “common communication platform of the UN system” which “comprises the information offices of the family of UN organizations, including the Secretariat, agencies specialists, programs and funds”.

This language defined by the key messages was reflected in an email sent internally to all United Nations Development Program staff worldwide on February 27, which referred to “the situation in Ukraine”, “Operations Russian military”, “Military operation”, “Military action”, and “conflict”, but did not use “war” or “invasion”.

An updated “key messages” document was drafted by the UN Communications Group and distributed to staff on Monday 6.

The language he provided senior executives and spokespersons to use when speaking to the media began with the phrase “This conflict must end now. . . The military offensive is not reversible.

Overall, the document used the term “military offensive” four times and “conflict” 11 times. He did not use the word “invasion”. The word “war” has been used twice, to refer to “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II” and in the sentence, “Children can suffer lifelong trauma after being witnesses of war.

Finally, personnel in Europe on Monday the 7th were explicitly instructed not to use “war” or “invasion” and to use “conflict” or “military offensive” instead.

The instruction was sent to a staff mailing list by the director of the United Nations Regional Information Center for Western Europe, which is part of the Department of Global Communications. The Irish Times confirmed that the email had been received by various UN agencies in Europe.

A later email to The Irish Times suggests that the instruction not to use “war” or “invasion” was quickly reversed.

“Please note the change from guidance sent by the UN system yesterday (below) regarding key messaging language regarding: ‘conflict’ and/or ‘military offensive’, as today’s approved key messages hui now refer to ‘war’ and/or ‘invasion’,” read an email sent to a group of UN workers in Europe on Tuesday.

UN response

UN spokespersons denied that it was official policy to avoid the terms “war” and “invasion”. The UN spokesperson’s Twitter account initially called the Irish Times report “false”. Spokespersons have since acknowledged that the email was sent to staff asking them not to use the words.

But spokeswoman Melissa Fleming wrote on Twitter in response to a request for clarification from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba that the email “only went to about 25 employees”.

“It was sent by a local office without authorization and does not represent the official position of the organization,” Ms Fleming wrote.

Ms Fleming shared posts on Twitter and Instagram late Tuesday afternoon Brussels time which read: ‘Two million refugees and many more on the way, desperately trying to escape this horrific, senseless and brutal invasion’ .

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