Persona Non Grata!! Clever strategies states use to silence international criticisms – and how to counter-act

As international humanitarian, development and political organizations increasingly deploy staff into conflict zones who may witness and expose human rights abuses, host states have a range of tactics to keep them quiet. One simple yet powerful weapon is declaring an outspoken expatriate persona non grata, i.e. demanding their immediate expulsion—which effectively casts a pall of self-censorship and submissiveness over an entire organization and beyond. The threat is so palpable that among expatriates engaged in sensitive work in the field, its acronym has become a verb: “If we say that, I might get PNG’d!

Burma/Myanmar PNG’d a UN Resident Coordinator. Malawi expelled a UK High Commissioner. Israel PNG’d a UN Special Rapporteur. Sudan threw out a Special Representative of the Secretary General. These are just a few of the high-profile examples. In other less-publicized cases institutions are told to send home mid-level staff whom state intelligence consider troublesome. The tactic targets individuals, disrupts their lives and often damages their career, while sending an ominous message to the rest of the international community.

There are thousands of committed and competent international service professionals out there who want to engage more forthrightly about human rights protection, but their challenge is always the same: What can I say? What can’t I say? When can I say it? and, What will happen to me if I do? With the threat of PNG, states play on these doubts to paralyze advocacy.

I suspect that international institutions are often more passive and timid than necessary when faced with this threat, folding quickly without attempting preventive negotiation or advocacy strategies. My aim in this study is to carefully dissect as many instances of such harassment as I can find information about, analyzing the different stages these processes go through, and identify the key decision-points where the individuals, the institutions and their allies might act differently to prevent their paralyzing impact. My second hypothesis is that international professionals and their institutions all over the world are disproportionately inhibited afterwards by these relatively infrequent events. This state tactic triggers widespread risk aversion. In a prominent example, the UN’s scathing Independent Review of the devastating final months of the Sri Lanka war described a “persona non grata syndrome” in which fear of expulsion kept the entire international community silent in the face of mass killing and war crimes. I hope to survey and interview international professionals all over the world to map out how these events are affecting them.

As this project moves forward over the next year or two, I will be publishing results in articles, online fora, and if possible as a book. I may also organize small consultations to discuss results, or discussion events at larger conferences. My hope is to help all of us identify and encourage better defensive strategies among international organizations to confront the chilling effects of this type of state harassment.

Many of us have seen the insidious and demoralizing impact of this tactic over and over. As I begin this research, I would be very grateful for any of your inputs and advice. If you are familiar with instances of expulsion or persona non grata that you can tell me about – or even threats of expulsion that may not have been implemented, please get in touch with me. On a more subjective level: if you have experienced situations where leaders and institutions have been self-inhibiting due to perceived risks of expulsion, these examples will also be very helpful to my research. Please do not hesitate to specify if you prefer that your information is kept confidential – all such examples will still be helpful to learn from even if they cannot be described in the written outputs of the project.

Finally, if any of you can share any suggestions of potential funders who might be able to help propel this project forward, that would be a huge help. At the moment this is at the level of a concept I am beginning to work on, but not yet a funded project.

Any ideas are appreciated. Please share this post with others whom you think might be interested.

– Liam Mahony, Director, Fieldview Solutions ([email protected])


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