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UNpaid Interns Protesting in UN Are Told Signs Are Illegal, As Is Filming

By Matthew Russell Lee

UNITED NATIONS, November 10 -- Amid mounting questions about the UN using only unpaid interns, favoring the most affluent, a group of interns tried to raise the issue inside the UN on November 10. But UN Security first told them they could not display their (small) signs, then tried to prevent photographing and filming of the muted protest by the press. This is today's UN. This too: Inner City Press tweeted a photo, and broadcast live Periscope video.

  The November 10 protest in rainy New York was preceded by one in Brussels, “standing up for those who cannot afford working for free;” in Geneva on this theme shoes were lined up on the street.

This comes at a time when Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's UN is moving to give raises to its Under Secretaries General such as Herve Ladsous, who linked peacekeepers' raping to their lack of “R&R” and “distraction.”

Inner City Press and the Free UN Coalition for Access (FUNCA) have previously asked the UN about this issue and covered it, as has VICE News, which was on the scene Nov 10.

Inner City Press on September 4 again asked Secretary General Ban Ki-moon's spokesman Stephane Dujarric about it, video here, transcript here:

Inner City Press: I have been meaning to just follow up on this.  The letter that was written to the Secretary-General by unpaid UN interns in New York and Geneva, seemed like it was responded to by USG [Under-Secretary-General Yukio] Takasu.  It's not clear — I guess I wanted to ask you.  Is the Secretariat saying that it's an administrative instruction some time back that precludes them from paying interns from the developing world, so that the pool can become more diverse?  Or are they really saying that the GA has definitively made it impossible?  Is there any consideration in asking the GA to address the issue?

Spokesperson Dujarric:  It's a valid of question.  I haven't seen the letter.  I need to take a look at it.  Nobody has shared it with me.  Nobody tells me anything here.  You know, I think on the issue of interns, it is also — I think it's also important to remember that the UN has a global presence, not in every country in the world, but almost every country in the world, and we do take interns locally, so I think there's also… obviously there's a greater mass of interns at our Headquarters station, but we do take interns… most UN offices take interns in different places, which doesn't include the need to travel.  Let me look in the letter and I'll get back to you.

Inner City Press:  Can you get data on that?

Spokesman:  Probably not, because I don't think it exists. 


Back on August 11, Inner City Press asked Dujarric, video here, UN transcript here:

Inner City Press: I'm sure you've seen this story about the New Zealand intern at the UN in Geneva living in a tent.  I want to ask sort of a more fundamental question, which is that what would the UN say to those who say that by having so many entirely unpaid internship, it basically, it… it limits this possible career step of learning to only the most affluent people…?

Spokesman Dujarric:  I think it's a very valid point.  The debate around the payment of interns is one that's been going on for some time.  We are not in a position to pay our interns.  It's too bad in a way, because I think it does limit the opportunity to those who are able to pay their own way and house themselves.  Unless the General Assembly changes those rules, there is no change in sight.  What's important is that any internship be used as a learning opportunity for the intern and not be used as, you know, as free labour or as a substitute for work done by staff.

Inner City Press:  Okay. Is that something that the Secretary-General has ever raised to the GA [General Assembly] or…?

Spokesman Dujarric:  I'm not aware of that.

    Back in May 2013 an internship in the UN was auctioned off, ultimately for $26,000, in a process extensively covered and questioned by Inner City Press. The UN said it was embarrassed by the auction or the "optics," and resisted Inner City Press' questions about the sale.

After Inner City Press asked several times about it, the description of the internship being auctioned was "amended," as the UN spokesman put it, to read:

"Take advantage of this exclusive opportunity for a 6-week internship in NYC working for Bruce Knotts, Chair of the UN-NGO Committee on Human Rights. You will gain inside knowledge of just how the UN really operates and have tremendous opportunities to make invaluable connections. This truly is the ultimate internship opportunity for any college or graduate student looking to get their foot in the door!"

The auction, on, said it was to benefit the RFK Young Leaders. Press inquiries to that entity and its parent, the RFK Center, did not yield any answers. But today, at least, we have a detailed answers about how such internships or grounds-passes work, from the Director of the UN Department of Public Information's Outreach Division, Maher Nasser.

  Inner City Press, along with another DPI question to which it is still awaiting the answer -- why was UNTV shut off while Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat was giving a speech on Monday morning -- asked Nasser, "I heard when you told DPI-NGO orientation that it makes the UN look bad, and that the UN is not obligated to let the person ('m. alam') who purchased the internship into the building. Is that the case? And you could keep me informed on this, when the purchased internship is to begin and what the UN / DPI does?"

  To his credit, Nasser provided Inner City Press with the most detailed UN response to date on the auctioned internship:

Subject: Question re the auctioned internship, thanks
From: Maher Nasser [at]
Date: Mon, May 20, 2013 at 2:38 PM
To: Matthew Russell Lee [at]

Hi Matthew, On the internship issue, as you know from the relevant website, this was for an internship with an NGO, not an internship at the UN. The optics of it and use of the UN's image implied otherwise, which is why I flagged it in the orientation with newly associated NGOs as something that hurts the UN and is not acceptable.

Every NGO associated with DPI is entitled to only six yearly passes, two of which are for youth representatives. The names to whom the passes are issued are provided by the president/head of each NGO. By providing the names, the NGO certifies that these names represent the NGO concerned. Up till now, we have had no reason not to grant a pass to people designated as representing an NGO. An old system of temporary passes issued throughout the year was discontinued by DPI several years ago.

With reference to the six names provided, and as I said above, this has not happened in the past, if we find out that someone had to pay or buy a slot on that list, we would take it up with the concerned NGO and depending on the feedback, not endorse that name for a pass.

In view of the case of the auctioned internship, we are preparing language to be added to the forms to be completed by DPI associated NGOs to avoid such possibilities in the future.

  So at a minimum, the "m. alam" on whose behalf $26,000 was bid for this internship might not be endorsed for a pass to actually enter the UN. Would they get a refund? And what do the UN-NGO Committee on Human Rights and the RFK Center have to say? Watch this site.

Footnote: While we await another division of DPI's promised answer to the Free UN Coalition for Access about how and why UNTV shut off during Saeb Erakat's speech, we note complaints received about the press corps move-back to the Secretariat building, particularly among broadcasters about special charges, special deals, special inquiries. The DPI official in question is aware of several of these complaints; watch this site.

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