New documents reveal top-level UN policy setting soft language on Ukraine

UN staff were instructed not to use ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ in regard to Ukraine

Fresh documents from within the United Nations have shown that a decision to avoid the word “invasion” and instruct staff to moderate their language around the war in Ukraine was passed down from the top soon after Moscow sent its army to attempt to seize control of Ukraine.

As revealed by The Irish Times, on Monday the UN's Department of Global Communications emailed a staff mailing list to instruct employees not to use "war" or "invasion" in regard to Ukraine, and to use "conflict" or "military offensive" instead.

This order was hastily reversed on Tuesday morning Brussels time as fresh guidance was issued UN-wide, according to a further internal email seen by The Irish Times, while a spokesman for the organisation denied that the original email represented the organisation’s “official position”.

However, staff within the UN have said that the Monday email was just the latest and most explicit instruction in a series urging them to moderate their words about the invasion or not to mention it, as the international organisation struggles to balance political sensitivities at a time when powerful member state Russia is forcefully cracking down on 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 described the invasion on social media.

In addition, “key messages” drawn up and provided to senior staff and spokespeople to instruct them as to what phrases to use when speaking to media included the terms “conflict” and “military offensive” and did not use “war” or “invasion”, according to documents from February 26th and March 6th.

These phrases were drawn up by a crisis communications team within the United Nations Communications Group, a body that co-ordinates communication for the entire global organisation, before being distributed to branches of the UN, the documents showed.

The decision not to use the word “invasion” came from the very top, according to an email from a senior official in the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy United Nations Development Programme in New York that instructed colleagues how to communicate on February 25th.

“The SG has decided to use the phrase ‘military operations’ (not invasion or incursion),” the email read, using an abbreviation to refer to the UN’s 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 has been unequivocal. And every day since his focus has been stopping the war, saving civilians and getting into Ukraine desperately needed life-saving humanitarian aid.”

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

The context

Staff communications are tightly regulated in the UN. Employees must agree upon joining the agency not to make public pronouncements that could impact the “independence and impartiality required by their status as international civil servants”, according to a staff handbook that sets out that disciplinary procedures may be used if they do not follow the instructions of their supervisors.

Staff who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity explained that a series of instructions warning about mentioning the invasion of Ukraine on social media were distributed to broad staffing mailing lists from the morning of the invasion on, culminating in the Monday email which was understood by those who received it to constitute a ban on using 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 the prohibition on speaking to the media.

“This being at the same time when you get 15 years in Russia for saying those exact same words. We were stunned. We couldn’t believe what we were seeing.”

Another employee described the policy as part of a long-running trend of holding back language for fear of upsetting member states.

“It is truly soul-destroying when you are a UN staffer to be continuously, endlessly told that you cannot say a single thing on ‘controversial issues’, such as mass murder, ethnic cleansing or genocide . . . in case it sounds like ‘criticism of a member state’,” the official said.

The manner of distribution of the email reflected the typical way that instructions from senior levels in the UN are passed on through the organisation’s network of regional offices, offshoots and programmes, staff members said.

A timeline of communications

On the morning of the invasion on February 24th, staff at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) were sent an email by communications telling them to “refrain from engaging around sensitive issues on your personal social media accounts” and reminding them of the UN social media policy.

On February 25th, UNDP staff were sent an email by a top UNDP official in New York, the deputy assistant administrator and deputy director of the Bureau of External Relations and Advocacy.

This email passed on the “latest updates from the UNCG”, a reference to the pan-organisation United Nations Communications Group, crediting a senior communications official for providing the newest instructions.

“The SG has decided to use the phrase ‘military operations’ (not invasion or incursion),” the email read, using an acronym used to refer to the UN’s secretary general (SG) António Guterres or his office.

On February 26th, a “key messages” document was sent to senior UN staff internationally by top official Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary general for political and peacebuilding affairs, The Irish Times understands. Seen by The Irish Times, the document provided phrases to be “used by UN principals and spokespeople when speaking to media”.

It set out the terms “military offensive” and “conflict” to describe the situation, as well as “crisis” and “hostilities”. It did not use the word “invasion”. It used the word “war” to say “an information war is under way”.

As sample key phrases to use when speaking to the media, the document gave: “The Russian Federation’s military offensive 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 stated that it had been produced by the “UNCG Crisis Communications Cell . . . based on information received from across the UN system”. The UN website describes the UNCG as the “common communications platform of the United Nations system” that “comprises the information offices of the United Nations family of organisations, including the Secretariat, specialised agencies, programmes and funds”.

This language set by the key messages was reflected in an email sent internally to all UN Development Programme staff globally on February 27th, which referred to “the situation in Ukraine”, “Russian military operations”, “military operation”, “military action”, and “conflict”, but did not use “war” or “invasion”.

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

The language it provided for senior staff and spokespeople to use when speaking to media began with the sentence “This conflict must stop now . . . The military offensive is not reversible.”

Overall, the document used the term “military offensive” four times and “conflict” 11 times. It did not use the word “invasion”. The word “war” was used twice, to refer to “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II” and in the sentence, “Children may suffer lifelong trauma after witnessing war.”

Finally, staff in Europe on Monday 7th received the explicit instruction 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 Centre for Western Europe, part of the Department of Global Communications. The Irish Times has confirmed that the email was received across different UN agencies in Europe.

A subsequent email passed on 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 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’,” read an email sent to a group of UN staff in Europe on Tuesday.

Response of the UN

UN spokespeople have denied that it was official policy to avoid the terms “war” and “invasion”. The UN spokesperson’s Twitter account initially described The Irish Times report as “fake”. Since then, spokespeople have acknowledged that the email was sent to staff instructing them not to use the words.

But spokeswoman Melissa Fleming wrote on Twitter in response to a request for clarification by Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba that the email “only went to about 25 staff”.

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

Ms Fleming shared messages on Twitter and Instagram late on Tuesday afternoon Brussels time that read: “Two million refugees with many more on their way, trying desperately to escape this horrific, senseless, brutal invasion.”

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times