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The UN Warns Personnel About Potential Violence in the US but Is Silent on the Election Itself

President Trump, at about 2 A.M. on Nov. 4, 2020
President Trump, at about 2 A.M. on Nov. 4, 2020, declared himself the winner of the US presidential election, although ballots were still being counted in key states and Joe Biden, his opponent, could win. Meanwhile, the UN secretary-general has stayed quiet on the US election so far.

The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, has so far remained silent on the United States Nov. 3 presidential election, despite concerns about possible violence in the country and President Trump having prematurely proclaimed victory. Indeed, the UN warned its personnel at New York headquarters to be prepared for “civil unrest” that may occur over the election.

President Trump declared himself the winner a few hours after midnight, on Nov. 4, saying, “Frankly, we did win this election”; that he was going to the US Supreme Court; and that “we want all voting to stop,” even though ballots continue to be counted legally and legal advisers say Trump can’t go to the court directly.

“No comment at this point,” Stéphane Dujarric, Guterres’s spokesperson said to the media at midday on Nov. 4, when asked about the US election situation. Two former UN spokespeople told PassBlue that a presidential election in the US, the host country of the UN, requires delicate handling by a secretary-general. Yet the UN applies a double-standard in its responses to elections worldwide, one ex-spokesperson said.

“Well, I think the Secretary-Generals are normally very careful about what they say, particularly about the internal affairs of Security Council members,” Edward Mortimer, a former communications director for Kofi Annan, who was secretary-general from 1997 to 2006, said. “Of course, this is an unprecedented situation, the US behaving like a failed state.”

The possibility of violence in the US was directly addressed in a recent letter obtained by PassBlue in which the UN headquarters warned its New York-based personnel last week about “the possibility of civil unrest” as the “host country elections could spark both celebrations and spontaneous demonstrations.”

The UN’s Security and Safety Service noted that it “is in contact with our law enforcement counterparts in monitoring the situation where our personnel are located and will provide updates and advice, via security email broadcasts, as appropriate.”

The letter advised personnel that if they encountered a protest, they should, as first resort, “Remain calm and carefully navigate to the edge of the crowd or where it is safest.”

So far in New York City, where PassBlue is based, calm has pretty much prevailed in the days leading up to and on Election Day, but boarded-up storefronts throughout the region have signaled anxiety about possible reactions to the election process and outcomes. A violent clash in Washington, D.C. and flag-burning in Portland, Ore., did occur on Election Night, according to The Washington Post. [Update: On Nov. 5, protests were happening in New York City and other cities, focusing on counting ballots.]

Although Guterres has stayed silent on the anything related to the US elections, he has been commenting recently through his spokesperson on elections and related unrest in countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Tanzania, Bolivia, Kyrgyzstan and, to some extent, Belarus. Guterres is heading into his final year of his five-year term, and many sources who follow the UN closely say he wants another term after Dec. 31, 2021. To succeed, he needs the approval of the permanent members of the UN Security Council: Britain, China, France, Russia and the US.

The UN has been fairly consistent about not saying much about the US voting process in the 2020 election. When asked on Oct. 8 about the reaction if Trump decided to not leave office if he lost the election, as he suggested repeatedly that he might do, Dujarric said, “I don’t like to speculate, and I really am not going to speculate in this case.”

Yet reporters have kept asking. On Nov. 2, Farhan Haq, Dujarric’s deputy, was asked if the UN had a statement on the US election, “given high levels of anxiety and growing fears of post election violence?” Haq replied: “I don’t have anything to say right now. Of course, we expect the election will go ahead tomorrow. If we have something to say on that day, we’ll let you know then.”

Macy's Department Store in Brooklyn, NY with boarded windows
The Macy’s department store in downtown Brooklyn, N.Y., boarded up days before the Nov. 3 elections in the United States. New York City has been relatively calm in this period. JOHN PENNEY

The UN addressed pre-election jitters in the US on July 30 when Haq was asked about Trump’s tweet on possible delays in elections results. “Well, I don’t have any particular comment to make about any remarks or tweets,” Haq said. “I do have the general point that we make about all elections, which is that we expect that all elections are to be held in accordance with the respective rules and laws of each country. And, so, each country has its own electoral procedures, and we expect that those will be followed.”

In the last few weeks, expert reports detailed far-right armed militias in the US actively sowing violence, and political observers like the US-based International Crisis Group warned of possible post-election contestation and violence. The New York-based nonprofit organization the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect, which tracks populations at risk of mass atrocity crimes, said the threat of US election-related violence was real.

In October, it said in a statement: “In June this year, for the first time in our history, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect published an ‘Atrocity Alert’ for the United States. That alert was issued just nine days after an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, was choked to death by police in Minneapolis. Floyd’s death led to massive protests in more than 100 US cities and towns, and some rioting.”

The major international body for monitoring elections, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, began observing the US voting process on Sept. 29 in 28 of the 50 states and the Capitol. It concluded on Nov. 4 that the elections were “well managed despite the many challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.” It also said that “the campaign was characterised by deeply entrenched political polarisation that often obscured the broader policy debate and included baseless allegations of systematic fraud.”

Urszula Gacek, head of the OSCE’s monitoring mission in the US, said as well: “The enormous effort made by election workers, supported by many engaged citizens, ensured that voters could cast their votes despite legal and technical challenges and deliberate attempts by the incumbent president to weaken confidence in the election process.

“But this election is not over, and we remain here in DC and in key states around the country until it is. It is vital that every properly cast ballot is properly counted.”

Although a UN secretary-general often comments on elections in less-influential countries, Mortimer, a Briton, did not deny that there is a different standard applied when it comes to the permanent-five members of the Security Council. The US is also the largest financial donor to the UN.

“The Charter says the UN is made of 193 equal sovereign states but that’s not the reality; the reality of that is written in the Charter itself: naming five permanent states in the Security Council,” Mortimer said by phone on Nov. 3.

With misinformation now playing an integral role in US election campaigns, Mortimer said that the UN making a statement could do more harm than good for its leadership: “The problem with the implication of the question, that he should say something, a carefully phrased, impartial statement, might be there are plenty of people, including the President who would interpret it, represent it as an intervention of the UN in internal affairs of the US.”

Fred Eckhard, an American who was Secretary-General Annan’s spokesperson, from 1997 to 2005, wrote in an email to PassBlue that though he couldn’t recall a policy on the UN commenting on elections, he said, “In practice, I would have to be asked to comment on a US election and then respond with something like, ‘The Secretary-General wishes the American people a peaceful election.'”

He added that if there were UN monitors covering the election, as they sometimes do in other countries, he could describe their mission. “Any statement from the UN regarding an election would be attributable to the spokesperson if the election were peaceful and successful.”

“If there were violence, he would call for calm, of course, and that would go for the US as well,” Eckhard continued. “If he thought the US President were inciting the violence, depending on the Secretary-General, he might issue a statement implying some criticism, but delicately so because this is after all the most powerful Member State.”

In remarking on the legitimacy of elections, Dujarric explained, for example, the UN’s response to Belarus. President Aleksandar Lukashenko declared himself the winner in the still-contested Aug. 9 election, whose results have been strongly backed by Russia. But the UN has refrained from making a clear statement about Belarus because it was not involved technically or any other procedural way in the electoral process.

“There are a lot of places where we offer technical assistance, coordination of observers,” Dujarric added. “There are places where we have special political missions, peacekeeping missions, where our involvement is much greater.” The UN has not offered technical help in the 2020 US election.

A UN secretary-general must also be careful about making a statement too soon. In 2000, after Annan was told while in flight that George W. Bush won the election in the US (over Al Gore) as votes were still being counted in Florida, he congratulated Bush for winning. His call was later criticized as being premature, and the move was perceived as a “major catastrophe,” Mortimer said.

Guterres’s silence does not mean that he won’t stay that way forever. “Obviously, it might depend on if there is violence and, if so, on what scale, he might feel compelled to say something,” Mortimer said.

A Russian diplomat was asked his thoughts about the US election — including any concerns about the boarded-up storefronts in New York City and what might happen after Nov. 3. He had trouble responding, too.

Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian ambassador to the UN, replied: “Can I leave this question unanswered? Do you prefer to ask me who is winning because I am Russian? You should ask me that after the announcement of the results of the election, so that I would be able to tell you that I had known everything before.

“Look, I wouldn’t like to see New York veneering businesses like [it] was in April or later in May. Of course, I would like the city to stay safe and avoid any turmoil whatsoever, for whatever reason. This is a great place. It is a place where we all live. We want it to be safe.”

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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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