In their latest protest pushing to get paid, United Nations interns congregated in a flash mob outside the organization's New York headquarters on Tuesday, but were dispersed by security after entering the General Assembly building. That's when security personnel also told VICE News to delete photographs of the encounter.
At 1pm, about 20 interns from various UN agencies gathered in the rain outside the headquarters' visitors entrance, holding signs that collectively spelled "unpaid is unseen." Below them were scattered pairs of shoes, which they said represented young people in developing countries who were unable to partake in UN internships without financial compensation.
The event was organized by a group calling itself the Fair Internship Initiative, or FII, one of the main intern-run organizations that has advocated for UN agencies to offer paid internships, something the vast majority do not.
Mehrnusch Anssari, a German intern at the UN's legal department, said she was able to come to New York only thanks to financial assistance from the German government, a backing that few countries offer.
"People from the developing world need that money," she said. "I think that interns should be paid, especially those who can't afford to come here."
Interns involved in organizing commonly repeat that argument, stressing they are advocating not only on behalf of themselves, but for those without the means to pay for three or six-month trips to New York or Geneva — two of the world's most expensive cities, where many of the organization's intern positions are located.
After 20 minutes, most of the interns went inside the General Assembly building, where they hoped to take a picture. That's when things got hairy.
As the interns sat in front of a panel of portraits of the current and former Secretary Generals, a security guard approached them, saying that protests weren't allowed inside the UN. They put away their signs and said they wanted to just take a few photographs together. The guard let them do that, but soon after two other security officers, from the UN's Emergency Response Unit, in black clothes and wearing bulletproof vests, approached.
The two guards began inspecting some of the signs that several interns still carried folded under their arms. VICE News, as it had for the previous half hour, began to photograph the encounter. Shortly after, the two guards told VICE News to "delete" the photos, saying that permission hadn't been requested.
After this reporter identified himself as a member of the media, the guards said that didn't matter, and continued to demand that the photos be deleted. VICE News refused, at which point one of the officers removed the reporter's identification badge from its holder and walked off with it, explaining that security had to take down the information of everyone present.
For the interns, the incident was a distressing end to one of the largest protests centered on their rights at the UN in New York. It also underscored a common fear among interns: that by advocating for paid internships, they could jeopardize their current positions, as well as any future job at the UN.
In spite of that, Alessandro Greppi, an organizer at FII, said things were looking up for their cause. He said FII had met with the missions of more than 15 member states, including the US, all of which expressed some level of support.
It's not entirely clear why the UN claims it cannot pay interns. The organization says that a decades-old resolution mostly focused on personnel lent for free by member countries to the Department of Peacekeeping requires the General Assembly to specifically approve funding for interns. Greppi said that regardless of the legal specifics, UN politics mean interns need Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to explicitly advocate for payment, and pressure member states.
"In the end it's kind of both of them [member states and the UN itself] that need to agree, but it's the Secretariat that has to raise it first," said Greppi.
As for the earlier encounter with Security, Ban's office said that officers were operating within guidelines when they told the interns they couldn't congregate inside the UN.
"The basic point is that political protests or banners are not allowed in the UN, so such protests are dispersed by security as a matter of course," said spokesperson Farhan Haq in an email.
Haq added that he would convey UN policy on journalist access to the organization's security.
"It has always been clear that reporters are allowed to cover all events and the UN and we uphold that right," he said.