The United Nations (UN) is facing backlash as some social media users claim that the organization has banned its staff from using the words “war” and “invasion” to describe Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
Naomi O’Leary with The Irish Times newspaper first reported the information on Tuesday, citing an email reportedly sent to some UN staff members on the organization’s communications policy. The newspaper report claims that the email sent on March 7, more than one week after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the country’s attack on Ukraine, said staff should “use ‘conflict’ or ‘military offensive’ and not ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ when referring to the situation in Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba responded to the report in a tweet, writing, “It’s hard to believe that the UN could essentially impose the same kind of censorship as the Kremlin imposes inside Russia now by banning the use of words ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ among UN staff. I urge the UN to swiftly refute such reports if they are false. UN reputation at stake.”
Is the United Nations banning use of the words “war” and “invasion” among staff to describe Russia’s attack on Ukraine?
- Emails from the UN Regional Information Center (UNRIC) for Western Europe, obtained by The Irish Times reporter Naomi O’Leary and shared with VERIFY
- Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General
- Tweets from UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo and Secretary-General António Guterres (here and here)
- All-staff email provided by UN representatives
This claim needs context. While a regional office did advise staff members to avoid using the words “war” and “invasion” to describe Russia’s attack on Ukraine, UN representatives say this isn’t the organization’s official policy.
WHAT WE FOUND
VERIFY obtained an email sent on March 7 by an official with the UN Regional Information Center (UNRIC) for Western Europe through screenshots provided by O’Leary, who is the Europe Correspondent for The Irish Times. The email provides staff with “specific examples of language to use/not use at the moment,” including the use of “conflict” or “military offensive” and not “war” or “invasion” when referring to the situation in Ukraine. It also recommends that staff refrain from adding the Ukrainian flag to their social media accounts.
The email also reminds staff that they “have a responsibility to be impartial” as “international civil servants.”
A follow-up email sent on March 8, which O’Leary also provided, suggests that the guidance may have been updated to allow use of the words “war” and “invasion” in reference to the conflict.
“Please note the change from guidance sent by [the] UN system just yesterday (below) concerning key messaging language re: ‘conflict’ and/or ‘military offensive’ as today’s approved key messages now refer to ‘war’ and/or ‘invasion,’” the email reads.
Shortly after O’Leary’s story was published, a spokesperson for the UN responded by tweeting that “it is simply not the case that staff have been instructed not to use words like ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ to describe the situation.” The spokesperson pointed out a March 7 tweet from Rosemary DiCarlo, UN Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, where she used both words.
“Nearly two weeks on, it is painfully clear that those suffering the most after Russia's invasion of Ukraine are civilians - killed, wounded, displaced,” DiCarlo tweeted. “This war is senseless. We are ready to support all good-faith efforts at negotiation to end the bloodshed.”
A previous email sent from UN headquarters in New York on Feb. 25, which O’Leary obtained and shared with VERIFY, says the Secretary General had “decided to use the phrase ‘military operations’ (not invasion or incursion).”
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said other leaders within the organization have also used the word “war.” Guterres referred to the conflict as “the war in Ukraine” in a tweet on Tuesday morning, one day after the regional office sent initial guidance instructing staffers to avoid the word.
Dujarric said during the briefing he “doesn’t doubt the veracity” of the email referenced in The Irish Times report and said someone “may have taken it upon themselves to send out an email as instructions.”
He later confirmed that the email came from a regional office and is “in no way official UN policy.” The regional office has been warned against sending this type of communication, he said.
The UN did send a separate email to all staff with a reminder about social media posts, Dujarric said during the briefing, though he didn't specify when the email was sent. Representatives for the UN sent a copy of the email to VERIFY, which says in part that “staff are asked to frame any communications on Ukraine as well as other political matters in a manner that is consistent with the position of the Organization and the statements of the Secretary-General.” The email doesn’t include guidance about specific words that staff can and cannot use.