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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman March 28, 2022

Claim that the UN told staff not to use ‘war,’ ‘invasion’ to describe Ukraine conflict needs context

If Your Time is short

  • An email was sent on March 7 instructing some U.N. staff members not to use the words "war" or "invasion" when discussing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. 

  • The message came from a regional office without clearance and is not considered official U.N. policy, organization officials told PolitiFact. U.N. leaders including Secretary General António Guterres and Rosemary DiCarlo, the organization’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, used the words in tweets before and after the email was sent.

The United Nations is being criticized by some online who claim the organization told staff members that they couldn’t use the words "war" or "invasion" when discussing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

"The United Nations has sent out an email instructing U.N. staff not to use the words ‘invasion’ or ‘war,’ when describing the big red flashes that are causing buildings to fall down with dead people inside them…" one March 17 Facebook post said.  

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

The online claims started after The Irish Times newspaper on March 8 reported that the U.N. had banned its staff from using "war" or "invasion" when referring to Ukraine. The publication soon revised its story, removing the word "ban" from its headline and first paragraph and instead wrote that the organization in an email had instead "advised" its staff to avoid the words. 

The U.N. confirmed to PolitiFact that the email cited is legitimate, but social media posts that claim the message represents official instructions need more context.

A regional U.N. office did send out an email to staff members on March 7 instructing them to refrain from using "invasion" or "war" when describing Russia’s attack, but U.N. representatives later said the message went to a small number of people and doesn’t represent the organization’s official policy. They also pointed out instances of various U.N. leaders using the words on social media after the email was sent. 

On March 8, Naomi O’Leary, the reporter of the Irish Times story, shared screenshots of the email on Twitter.

The message, sent by an official with the U.N. Regional Information Center for Western Europe, gives staff "specific examples of language to use/not use at the moment," including choosing "conflict" and "military offensive" over "war" and "invasion." It also recommended that staff not add the Ukrainian flag to any official or personal social media accounts. 

A follow-up email sent a day later, which O’Leary also shared on Twitter, suggests that the instructions were reversed to allow use of the words.

"Sharing today’s updated Ukraine messaging from the U.N. system. Please note the change from guidance sent by [the] U.N. 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 says. 

Shortly after the Irish Times story was published, Melissa Fleming, the U.N.’s under-secretary general for global communications, tweeted that no "official communication has gone out to global staff to refrain from using certain words."

Fleming, as well as the official U.N. spokesperson account, pointed to a March 7 tweet by Rosemary DiCarlo, the organization’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, in which she used both "invasion" and "war."

In a subsequent tweet, Fleming wrote that the email was sent by a "local office" without clearance and "does not represent the official position of the organization."

O’Leary, the Irish Times reporter, obtained an earlier email from Feb. 25, one day after Russia launched its attack. This time it was from New York’s United Nations Development Programme. It said that U.N. Secretary General António Guterres had decided to use the phrase "military operations" in lieu of "invasion" or "incursion." 

Guterres’ preference does not extend to the word "war," which he has used several times to refer to the conflict in Ukraine.

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for Guterres, told PolitiFact that it was a "mistaken impression" that U.N. staff were told to avoid using certain words to describe the situation in Ukraine. He also pointed to DiCarlo’s tweet and others as evidence of top U.N. officials using the words. 

"It is simply not the case that there was some sort of global instruction to all U.N. staff not to use words like ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ to describe the situation," Dujarric said.

He said that the March 7 email went out to about 25 people and he reiterated that it was "not an official edict" to staff around the world. 

Our ruling

A Facebook post claims that the U.N. sent an email instructing staff not to use the words "invasion" or "war" when referring to Ukraine.

The email is real and instructed some U.N. staff members not to use the terms. But it came from a regional U.N. office and officials say that it did not reflect the organization’s official policy. Top U.N. leaders have used the words on social media before and around the time the email was sent.

For a statement that’s partially accurate but leaves out important details, we rate this Half True.

Our Sources

Facebook post, March 17, 2022

Irish Times web archive, United Nations bans staff from using ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ regarding Ukraine, March 8, 2022

Irish Times, United Nations advises staff against using ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ regarding Ukraine, March 8, 2022

Twitter, tweets by Naomi O’Leary, March 8, 2022 

Twitter, Melissa Fleming tweet, March 8, 2022

Twitter, UN Spokesperson tweet, March 8, 2022 

Twitter, Rosemary DiCarlo tweet, March 7, 2022 

Twitter, tweets by António Guterres, Feb. 24 - March 8, 2022

Verify This, Claim that UN is banning use of word ‘war’ to describe Russia’s attack on Ukraine needs context, March 9, 2022

Snopes, Did UN Ban the Word ‘War’ Regarding Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?, March 8, 2022 

Phone and email interview, Stephane Dujarric spokesperson for United Nation Secretary-General António Guterres, March 25-28 2022

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Claim that the UN told staff not to use ‘war,’ ‘invasion’ to describe Ukraine conflict needs context

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