While Koki Muli Grignon was working as the facilitator during the most intense week of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, a prominent annual women’s rights conference at the United Nations, she received an odd email. It was the middle of nearly round-the-clock negotiations on the conference final summary document. The email message demanded that Grignon stand against abortion and same-sex families, criticized her conduct as a facilitator and said she was being watched.
“I didn’t give this email a lot of consideration because it was filled with inaccuracies, misinformation about my role as facilitator. So I generally ignored it,” said Grignon in a public statement in early May, weeks after the incident. She is deputy ambassador for Kenya at the UN.
But just a few hours later following the email, still during the negotiations at the end of March, her smartphone was flooded with hundreds of text messages, so frequent that she shut down her phone, concerned it might crash. When she tried to use her phone hours later, the messages were still being received in the same frequency and quantity, hundreds in many languages.
So Grignon requested that the delegates, amid the laborious negotiations at the UN, take a break so she could run across the road, outside the UN grounds, to an AT&T store.
“It was evident that the messages were the same, that the content was the same and was being populated by some kind of computer software,” Grignon said.
Each text to her personal phone was being sent by a new six-digit number under a new full name, which made it impossible for her service provider to block every message. By the time she changed her number, approximately 1,000 text messages had been sent in 12 languages.
The negotiations at the women’s conference, known as CSW and held over 11 days in March, include delegates from the 193 UN member nations. They haggle over every paragraph and even phrases in an “outcome document,” summing up the main points of the annual gathering.
This year’s negotiations were more intense than in recent years, with vigorous debate over keeping such language as “sexual and reproductive health” in the document, which builds on previous years’ and which some delegations, such as the United States, contends connotes abortion.
But what happened to Grignon could signal more troubling times of intimidation at the UN, which has no idea how to control such problems. UN officials and ambassadors may have diplomatic immunity at UN headquarters in New York, but they are not immune to the growing threats of cyberattacks on a global scale.
After she ran out of the UN to deal with her cellphone, Grignon knew she had to return within an hour of the break to keep the momentum going. Delegates’ energies were flagging, which in such negotiations can leave parties vulnerable to accepting compromises or ceding control. Without enough time to contact her family, Grignon was unreachable to them after changing her phone.
“None of the delegations were focusing on anything else,” Grignon said publicly in early May. “Everybody was dreaming, eating and breathing paragraphs . . . working in small groups to try and find consensus . . . so nobody really had time for this nonsense. It was quite intrusive.”
As one diplomat who is a close colleague of Grignon said, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic: “I could see on her face that she was very upset. It was not a fair attack. She’s a really good and fair person herself.”
Grignon explained her role leading the negotiations. “When you’re a facilitator, you are constantly using your phone for timekeeping, for checking paragraphs because delegations propose language and forward it to my email. I couldn’t do that when text messages kept coming,” she said. “It was rather very upsetting and also overwhelming. I was irritated beyond measure.”
During the closing day of the CSW, on March 22, Grignon, in her statement as facilitator, included an account of what happened regarding the text messages, saying, among other remarks, that she felt pushed around by people who didn’t believe she had their interest at heart.
“I felt very safe at the UN, until I had this questioning,” said Grignon, before pausing, visibly upset, and the delegations around the room applauded (see video timestamp, above, 3:30-3:58).
Her statement was followed by other remarks by delegations from UN member states, as well as the executive director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and the chair of the conference, Ambassador Geraldine Byrne Nason of Ireland. Many delegations spoke in solidarity for Grignon in parts of their own closing statements.(See video below.)
Other members of the UN community have since spoken up for Grignon.
“We condemn any attempt — online and offline — to intimidate and silence the voice of any women’s human rights defender, such as Ms. Muli [Grignon] who worked to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights at the Commission on the Status of Women,” said Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokesperson for Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, in an email to PassBlue from Geneva.
“This is a clear case of a reprisal and the UN as a whole has a collective responsibility to stop and prevent these reprehensible acts.”
The petition claims that Grignon reported harassment incidents to the FBI, that she misreported the number of text messages she received from CitizenGo and told PassBlue that she was “physically attacked by prolifers,” all of which is incorrect and grossly inaccurate information.
A website link at the bottom of this new petition links to a C-Fam blog post that purports that Grignon is creating a conspiracy against conservative groups because “a few thousand Kenyans reached out to Grignon to encourage her to take a pro-life position at the CSW.”
Behind the Onslaught of Text Messages
Several weeks after the CSW ended, delegations who attended the annual meeting learned of articles being published about Grignon on a conservative website called C-Fam, or the Center for Family and Human Rights, an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ rights organization based in the US. One article, published on March 23, 2019, said Grignon “was the likely recipient of a petition organized by the pro-life group CitizenGo.” This is where Grignon herself first heard about the CitizenGo Foundation and its online petition.
CitizenGo, which is based in Spain, also sponsored an anti-abortion bus traveling outside the UN campus during the CSW, with a fetus pictured on its sides.
The CitizenGo campaign specifically said it would send an email on petitioners’ behalf directly to Canada’s ambassador to the UN, Marc-André Blanchard; to the US acting permanent representative to the UN, Jonathan Cohen; and to Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the UN.
Yet it is unclear why only Grignon apparently received emails and texts at such high quantity.
When Grignon arrived at work at the Kenyan mission to the UN on April 22, weeks after the CSW was over, she received flowers and a letter from CitizenGo as well as a copy of the letter by email and by fax.
“I sent the flowers directly back,” she said, explaining she was unmoved by the gesture of apology.
The letter from CitizenGo was signed by its president and chief executive, Ignacio Arsuaga Rato, and addressed to Grignon. The letter took some responsibility and apologized for the text messages she received. It said that Grignon was a target of the petition for around 36 hours, from midday on March 20 to late-day on March 21, 2019. CitizenGo said that she was “considered as someone of significant influence,” and the online petition was the organization’s way to try to connect its members directly to their delegations or key decision-makers at the UN.
“When we were told that you were overwhelmed by the petitions responses, we removed you as the petition target,” the letter continues. “Please allow me to be clear that CitizenGo is not in the business of harassing, intimidating, threatening or bullying anyone.”
The letter said that Grignon had been sent a total of 3,000 such messages over a few days’ time, but it has not been possible to verify a final count.
An entire paragraph of the letter was dedicated to absolving C-Fam from any connection to the petition events, ending with, “We wish to make this letter available to the Kenya Mission to the United Nations, your fellow Deputy Permanent Representatives, as well their respective Missions to clear the name of C-Fam on this matter.”
Nevertheless, it is unclear why CitizenGo specifically aimed to delink C-Fam from its petition, since neither Grignon nor anyone else at the UN, or anyone associated with the CSW, has publicly pointed fingers at C-Fam or other entity. CitizenGo has not responded to PassBlue’s request for comment or an interview.
Both C-Fam and CitizenGo have consultative status with the UN.
C-Fam has been an accredited nongovernmental organization since 2014 and has participated in two Commission for Social Development conferences, which are open to civil society, in the last four years.
The letter ends with: “CitizenGo Foundation is a new NGO that is finding ways to give a voice to disenfranchised people all over the world through new advocacy methods and new technologies, and we will use this experience at CSW to learn, grow and become more effective, so you or any person working in the UN system never have to feel this way again.”
CitizenGo has been accredited at the UN as a nongovernmental organization under the name “HazteOIR,” which is its umbrella organization, also based in Madrid, since 2013.
There are currently more than 4,000 nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, accredited under the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), which sponsors the CSW and other conferences. The NGOs are governed by the principles contained in Resolution 1996/31.
Ecosoc can recommend the suspension or exclusion of consultative status of organizations, after periodic reviews, if they have not met the reporting requirements of their status or if they are not conforming “at all times to the principles governing the establishment and nature of their consultative relations with the Council” and in accordance with principles of the UN Charter itself.
What Happened Next
Within weeks after the CSW, Grignon reported the case of the text-message barrage to the UN’s Security Office, which referred her to the US mission to the UN to file a complaint, partly because AT&T, her cellphone service provider, is American.
“The UN does not have capacity to investigate these kinds of things,” Grignon told PassBlue in early May. “The USA team informed me that they would investigate and prepare a report.”
As Grignon waits for results of an investigation weeks after filing her complaint, the US mission could be in a murky position that could pose a conflict of interest if it is actually conducting an investigation.
During the 2017 Commission on the Status of Women, the White House chose C-Fam to join its delegation as a civil society member, justifying its presence as adding “diversity” to the conference, according to a US mission official at the time.
Delegate status enables an organization to attend events with the country delegation, but the civil society members cannot speak on the country’s behalf and are essentially restricted from the same level of participation as a member state. Yet by appearance and presence, they become a representative of that delegation’s values and agenda.
Although CitizenGo aimed to exonerate C-Fam for cyberharassing Grignon, throughout the same period of time that she was sent the text messages, C-Fam published its article about Grignon on March 23, 2019 on its website. The article states that many delegations, including “pro-life” delegations, expressed their sympathy for Grignon but also complained about “how donor governments threaten and bully delegates in New York” when they are anti-abortion, against LGBTQ rights or attempt to redefine the term “family.”
The only delegate who publicly said something akin to the C-Fam article’s references was the Holy See Mission to the UN, which is not a member state but holds permanent observer status. Another article on April 11, 2019, published by C-Fam also states that Grignon has ties to the Kenyan “abortion industry,” but does not provide supporting details.
The people from the US mission who took Grignon’s report of her experience at the CSW indicated to her that they would involve the New York Police Department in their investigation. It has not been confirmed if the FBI office in New York City will also be included in the investigation.
The US mission to the UN, the New York Police Department and the FBI have not responded to PassBlue requests for comment and confirmation at the time of publication. Neither has the State Department press office.
The US mission has been without a permanent representative to the UN since Ambassador Nikki Haley left in December 2018. In addition, a deputy ambassador suddenly left this year, weeks before the CSW began, and directions from Washington, D.C., on who would lead the US delegation at the conference were changed at the last minute.
Expectations for Next Year’s CSW
Involving more than 190 national delegates and hundreds of NGO or nonprofit entities from civil society who participate, the Commission on the Status of Women is often described as a thrilling yearly opportunity to progress the rights of women and girls internationally.
This year, longtime UN delegates described the environment at the conference as more contentious and tenser than in previous years, with a heavy conservative NGO presence that was hard to ignore. The sheer number of people lingering just outside meeting rooms in the UN and at offsite meetings nearby, mixed with behavior like making noise when it was someone else’s turn to speak, led to some disruptive civil society members being asked to exit from side doors to avoid creating further chaos.
A diplomat shared an email with PassBlue from a conservative nonprofit group to show how common it is becoming for delegations to receive threatening language in emails during the CSW.
“We predict big changes are coming to the UN as many UN Member States are now finally sufficiently angry to say enough is enough. The radicals have finally gone too far, and they are going to regret what they did at CSW this year as the backlash is going to be strong,” said part of a March 2019 message from Family Watch International. The US-based group claims on its website that it has UN consultative status, but that cannot be found in the Ecosoc database.
There are concerns of an even stronger conservative pushback and worsening harassment next year, when the CSW will be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the groundbreaking conference for setting in stone women’s rights globally. It was at Beijing where Hillary Clinton, who was first lady of the US at the time, famously said, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”
At a recent UN Correspondents Association press briefing previewing the next CSW, Asa Regner, deputy executive director for UN Women, answered questions about how the CSW would handle conservative pushback on women’s rights at the March 2020 conference.
“At the UN and at UN Women, we have a very particular task,” she said. “And that is to both defend, to contribute to implementation of and to advance when possible the international agreements that we have on gender equality. So obviously, we are not neutral or impartial to rights. We are here to work for women and girl’s rights and for gender equality, and we will continue to do so . . . we will never back down on the mandate or the task that we have.”
Regner, who is a former gender minister for Sweden, spoke about the lack of implementation of gender-equality policies as holding women back, keeping women and their children in poverty.
“It makes societies less peaceful and less prosperous when parts of society is not allowed to contribute with their knowledge,” she said.
Studies show that fears concerning safety and harassment are significant barriers that inhibit some women from benefiting from or even wanting to access the Internet, according to a report on Digital Gender Divide by the Broadband Commission Working Group, of which UN Women is a member. The report offers recommendations that both address threats and promote better understanding and awareness of how women experience threat.
An Action Plan for the UN
Milica Pejanovic-Durisic, the ambassador of Montenegro to the UN and an expert on telecommunications engineering, read out statistics about cyberharassment to kick off a panel discussion held at UN headquarters on May 7. At the event, Grignon detailed her experience during the CSW.
“Women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online and almost 47 percent of them are female politicians,” Pejanovic-Durisic said.
The program, titled “Tackling cyberharassment: helping women stay safer online and offline,” also included Ambassador Nason of Ireland; Parry Aftab, the founder of StopCyberBullying Global; and Anna Falth, the senior program manager of We Empower at UN Women. The event was moderated by a representative from the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized UN agency responsible for communication and information technology issues.
Nason spoke of Ireland’s awareness of responsibilities for online safety, as Dublin is the European headquarters for some of the world’s largest media companies, Google and Facebook, which is expecting to be slapped a $5 billion fine for privacy violations by the US Federal Trade Commission.
The panel discussed how online harassment can have drastic consequences for women’s health, well-being and economic power. Harassment undermines women’s ability to work and their public presence.
During the event, Grignon recounted the events of her harassment during CSW and reiterated her role during that time.
“Facilitators of intergovernmentally negotiated documents have no influence on the content of the document,” she said. “We represent the interest of our countries. So, if you have instructions [from your capital], no NGO can bully you to change that, because it’s not your position, it’s your government’s position.”
Grignon also recommended that several issues needed to be addressed about such harassment.
Firstly, she said there was a need for policy and a multilateral framework to be created to define cyberharassment and identify sanctions for the offense. This is particularly relevant, she said, for NGOs seeking or holding consultative status with the UN, ensuring that such status complies with basic online regulations and UN policies. Secondly, she recommended identifying legal remedies and counseling services for victims.
“It is important for the UN to establish support mechanisms and create safe spaces for member states, delegates, officials and partners,” she said.
Thirdly, Grignon recommended that the UN raise awareness about cyberharassment, how to prevent it and what to do when it happens to you or someone you know.
“Measures must be taken to address the anonymity of harassers, as this is one of the main catalysts for their behavior,” Grignon said.
Aftab said litigating such behavior requires “subpoena power.”
“In situations when someone is attacking you anonymously, like on Twitter, you want to find out who they are hiding inside the platform,” Aftab said. “And usually the ability to issue subpoenas lies with law enforcement agencies.”
Aftab, an American who specializes in cybercrimes, said that most states in the US have various harassment laws, and US federal law covers cyberstalking and harassment in anonymous forms. Western European countries also have laws, but she said they were the exception rather than the rule, while few Asian countries have such laws.
Globally, cybercrimes have two sides: where the message comes from and where it is received. The crime can therefore be implicated in either place, depending on where the laws are most advantageous to helping the victim. As many perpetrators often use the US First Amendment or freedom of expression laws in other countries, the legal side can get complicated in many cases of cyberharassment, which is why experts need to be involved to help.
In an interview with PassBlue after the panel discussion, Aftab said she was concerned that the UN didn’t seem to know what to do about the problem.
“They are used to dealing with physical intrusions into UN grounds, like people with guns and knives and not cybercrime,” Aftab said. “It takes specific cybertraining to know how to investigate cyberharassment and law enforcement in this area to know how to talk to each other internationally.”
Grignon could see her recommendations realized.
Aftab told PassBlue that she planned to set up a UN task force to help create infrastructure around cyberharassment and cybercrimes. She said she was donating her time to do the work, hoping the framework can be replicated in corporations, nonprofit groups and schools.
“Everybody needs it, but we can design a system for the UN that can be modeled after and used elsewhere,” she said. “We need to start protecting each other, teaching each other, providing self-help and education.”
“There are no systems in place, and our US legal system is alien to the UN,” she added. For example, you have to understand the difference, she noted, between the New York City district attorney, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security and what each does.
As Nason said at the May 7 event: “If that can happen to one of us then it can happen to any of us, who’s next? If people who do that job [facilitator] are going to be regarded as legitimate targets, the very delicate relationships that already exist in this house will begin to fray and tear.”
For Grignon, some of the text messages she received are still sitting in her phone, a reminder of what she lived with across a few tumultuous days’ time.
“The UN should be a safe space for all of us to persuade each other in order to build consensus,” she said. “Not a jungle for petitioning and bullying and harassing each other to submission. NGOs and partners who engage in cyber harassment should never get away scot-free, because this will perpetuate impunity. It is imperative for the UN to act now.”
A female journalist or politician is harassed on Twitter every 30 seconds, “and women of color experienced significantly higher levels of abuse,” according to reporting by the Columbia Journalism Review.
Update: After this article was published on May 13, PassBlue learned that a CitizenGo subsidiary, CitizenGo Africa, issued a new public petition against Grignon, calling for her government, Kenya, to recall her from her post as deputy ambassador to the UN.
The petition claims that Grignon reported harassment incidents to the FBI, that she misreported the number of text messages she received from CitizenGo and told PassBlue that she was “physically attacked by profilers ” all of which is grossly inaccurate information.
A website link at the bottom of the new petition links to a C-Fam blog post that purports that Grignon is creating a conspiracy against conservative groups because “a few thousand Kenyans reached out to Grignon to encourage her to take a pro-life position at the CSW.”
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Sonah Lee-Lassiter is a Korean-American freelance writer based in Brooklyn, who grew up across many US states. In her contributions to PassBlue, she has covered a wide range of topics, including Afghanistan’s migrant crisis, digital harassment at the UN and how the airline industry affects climate change. She has a degree in international management fromt the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and works in the civil service as well.