UN Denies Its Staffers Were Told to Refer to Putin’s War As ‘Conflict’ or ‘Military Offensive,’ Not ‘Invasion’ or ‘War’

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg in 2017. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.N. secretary-general Antonio Guterres at an economic forum in Saint Petersburg in 2017. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – United Nations officials on Tuesday denied that instructions had been sent to staff globally not to use certain words with reference to President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine – specifically, the words” invasion” and “war” – and pointed to examples of senior U.N. leaders themselves using such terms.

The government of Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has been enforcing language requirements on its domestic media outlets, which must use officially-sanctioned terms like “special military operation” to describe the invasion of Ukraine.

The Irish Times reported on an email in its possession, purportedly from the U.N. Department of Global Communications and with the subject line “Ukraine crisis communications guidelines,” offering “some practical resources and advice for how to approach this unique situation.”

Under the sub-heading “Language elements,” the email read, “Some specific examples of language to use/not use at the moment: ‘conflict’ or ‘military offensive’ and NOT ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ when referring to the situation in Ukraine.”

(Screengrab; Twitter/@NaomiOhReally)

(Screengrab; Twitter/@NaomiOhReally)

The report made waves, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba among those noting similarities with the Russian approach to reporting on the war.

“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,” Kuleba tweeted. “I urge the UN to swiftly refute such reports if they are false. UN reputation at stake.”

In response to Kuleba’s post, the head of the U.N. Department of Global Communications, Melissa Fleming, tweeted, “I lead @UN communications. No such official communication has gone out to global staff to refrain from using certain words.”

At a press briefing in New York, U.N. Secretariat spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that he “wanted to correct the mistaken impression that U.N. staff were told to avoid using certain words to describe the situation in Ukraine.”

“It is simply not the case that there was some sort of global instructions to all U.N. staff not to use words like ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ to describe the situation.”

Dujarric offered several examples of top U.N. officials using such language.

Rosemary DiCarlo, under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, tweeted the previous day, “Nearly two weeks on, it is painfully clear that those suffering the most after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are civilians – killed, wounded, displaced. This war is senseless. We are ready to support all good-faith efforts at negotiation to end the bloodshed.”

Dujarric said he did not doubt the “veracity” of the email cited by the Irish Times, but argued that it did not constitute advice from the organization to staff globally.

“What I’m saying is, it looks like someone, like in a regional office, may have taken it upon themselves to send out an email as instructions,” he said. “That is not – which should not have been done, because there are no official instructions on what words – saying those things. “

“And look, the only proof that I can give you is that those words have been used. Right? I mean, Rosemary DiCarlo used those words yesterday. As far as I can tell, she still has a job this morning.”

Dujarric declined to identify the particular “regional office” responsible but when asked if the office had been “warned,” he replied in the affirmative.

He also said the U.N. had now sent out an email to global staff – a different email – “to remind staff that they are international civil servants and uphold the responsibilities that position entails.”

“Accordingly, staff were asked to frame any communications on Ukraine, as well as any other political matters, in a manner that is consistent with the position of the organization and statements of the secretary-general.”

But, Dujarric stressed, there were no instructions in that email for employees “not to use certain words. And it’s the kind of message that we regularly send out to staff when there is a global event or a national event that has a lot of attention.”

Military operations’

Meanwhile the Irish Times reporter who wrote the story, Naomi O’Leary, posted on Twitter another U.N. email, this time sent out on February 25 – the day after Putin launched the invasion – in which the bureau of external relations of the U.N. Development Program shared with staff the fact that, “The SG has decided to use the phrase ‘military operations’ (not invasion or incursion).”

In U.N. parlance, SG stands for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

As the U.N. was meeting in emergency session in New York on the night that Putin announced his invasion plans, Guterres appealed directly to the Russian president: “Stop your troops from attacking Ukraine.”

In remarks in New York the following day, he referred to “Russian military operations” and his direct appeal to Putin had shifted to, “Stop the military operation.”

A review of Guterres’ tweets since the war began shows that he used the term “military operation” or “military operations” on February 24, February 28, and March 4.

At various times he used the word “war,” although usually in a more generic sense, such as a comment that the U.N. “was born out of war to end war,” and “It’s not too late to save this generation from the scourge of war.”

On March 1 Guterres referred to the “conflict,” and on March 2 to “hostilities.”  On Tuesday, March 8, Guterres used the words “the war in Ukraine.”



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