UN special rapporteur says UN staff 'cannot afford to be neutral' on some issues

By Sophie Edwards 13 February 2017

Maina Kiai, U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Photo by: Jean-Marc Ferré / U.N. Geneva / CC BY-NC-ND

The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association said he is “disappointed” by a move by the United Nations that he says undermines staff’s “obligation and responsibility” to stand up for human rights.

Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai’s comments came in response to an email seen by Devex that was sent by the U.N.’s ethics office in New York reminding staff that taking part in marches, protests and other activities may be “incompatible” with the code of conduct for international civil servants.  

The email was sent to staff on Jan. 20, the day before the Global Women’s March, to answer questions raised by staff about whether they can participate in “political activities and social media discussions,” including the Women’s March on Washington. The email concludes that “participating in certain activities, especially those with political overtones, may be viewed as incompatible with our status as international civil servants.”

Speaking exclusively to Devex, Kiai criticized the position outlined in the email.

“It’s very disappointing and it’s clear the email came out at a time when people wanted to support the women’s march and protest against the abuse of women,” he said. “The U.N. cannot afford to be neutral when it comes to human rights. It is staff’s obligation and responsibility to protect and fulfill human rights, it’s the third pillar of the U.N. system,” he added.

U.N. Spokesperson for the Secretary-General Stéphane Dujarric told Devex the Jan. 20 email from the ethics office was “sent out to staff was to serve only as a reminder of the code of conduct of international civil servants. It was not a message to prevent participation in the march.”

However, Kiai said the timing of the missive implies otherwise and criticized the U.N. for discouraging staff from taking part in the women’s march, which was billed by its organizers as a march to defend women’s rights against “rising rhetoric of far-right populism around the world,” and not about the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.

Instead of discouraging staff from protesting, the U.N. should be doing the opposite, according to Kiai, in order to protect human rights from a rising tide of populist political movements around the world.

“We are at a time of growing disrespect of human rights and democratic values across the world, and if there was ever a time to stand up and be counted both officially through the U.N.’s work and privately outside of work, then it is now,” he said.

The Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service states that while civil servants should “uphold and respect” human rights and equality for men and women, they “do not have the freedom of private persons to take sides or to express our beliefs publicly on sensitive political matters, either individually or as members of a group nor can we criticize or try to discredit a government.”

On Jan. 19, the World Food Programme, a U.N. agency headquartered in Rome, also emailed staff advising them it would be “inappropriate” for staff to join the Rome march, which Devex reported at the time. However, the next day, WFP’s Executive Director Ertharin Cousin sent a message to staff saying she had “no objection” to their taking part in the marches in a personal capacity.

Speaking exclusively to Devex, Kiai, who was appointed as special rapporteur in 2011, said he was “shocked” and “disturbed” to read in Devex about WFP’s initial advisory telling staff not to take part in the women’s march.  

He said the U.N. needs a unified position on staff participation in such events, and one that allows staff to respect human rights at an individual as well as institutional level, without contradiction. “If the U.N. is going to work then the values that create the U.N. system and human rights framework must be respected both individually and collectively,” he said.

Kiai also called on the U.N. and also development organizations, to “stop running away” and seeking to be apolitical. He advised any U.N. staff unsure about their position when it comes to taking part in protests, marches and other activities, to consult the High Commissioner for Human Rights. But he also said staff need to “collectively challenge” positions such as the one taken by WFP and the ethics office.

Kiai was appointed by the Human Rights Council as special rapporteur. The position is an honorary, independent and unpaid position with a mandate to monitor, investigate and make recommendations to protect and promote people's rights to assembly and association.

According to the the rapporteur’s website, which is managed by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Special Rapporteurs do not have any legally binding powers to compel governments to take action, but they can raise individual complaints with governments and raise publicity.”

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About the author

Edwards sopie
Sophie Edwards

Sophie Edwards is a reporter for Devex based out of Washington D.C. and London where she covers global development news, careers and lifestyle issues. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.

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