In a first-ever espionage scandal for the Paris-based United Nations educational and cultural institution, French national security agents paid a nocturnal visit to the UNESCO headquarters. Not long after that, they entered the headquarters again and spent a weekend there, thus violating the Vienna Convention and the Host-country Agreement signed by France and UNESCO.
As revealed to the Liberty Sentinel by an insider whistleblower, with supporting documentation, a team of French secret service agents accessed the UNESCO building on at least two occasions over the last several months. The access was granted by the Office of the Director General, the French Audrey Azoulay herself. The French security agents reportedly accessed the computer mainframe and central servers of the UN organization.
On the grounds of the cyberattack that affected several French companies and institutions in 2020, the French-led administration of UNESCO used the pretext of the hacker’s intrusion, that happened last July into its own computer networks, for allowing ANSSI, the French governmental security agency, to take the risky step of infiltrating the UN body IT systems.
The records show that the French agents accessed the UNESCO building in Paris on two occasions; however, such “visits” by agents may have occurred more than twice. On 20 October 2020, in coordination with the Office of the Director General, six French agents entered the UN headquarters after working hours and they left the place around midnight. Then more recently, they accessed again the UNESCO IT premises during the weekend of January 9-10, 2021.
According to our source, apparently the French undercover team was tasked with the objective “to set up devices allowing the surveillance of the information flowing between ambassadors and diplomats of the countries accredited to UNESCO, as well as the two-way communications with their capitals”. It is a known fact that several diplomatic delegations are making the life of Audrey Azoulay difficult. In the last two years, they keep asking pressing questions regarding her maladministration and the wrongdoings of her senior team.
“The monitoring tools that were most likely installed in our information system potentially allow access to a lot of data,” added the insider.
For UNESCO, 2021 is an electoral year. Obviously, for the French keeping an eye on the confidential exchanges between official representations of member states to UNESCO and their Governments is invaluable. The re-election of Ms Azoulay would be a considerable political win for France. Therefore, the parallel moves by the French are a decisive factor for her reappointment, and not the required competencies alone, since she had proven during her first mandate to have none.
The six agents, with the initials L.E., D.G., A.C., A.Z., L.S. and C.F., liaised with the Chief of Azoulay’s Office, Mr. Flavio Bonetti, who was a French sub-Prefect before joining her team at UNESCO.
Furthermore, for undisclosed reasons, the members of Ms Azoulay’s Office couldn’t pre-arrange access to the main computer. Under the instruction of the Head of UNESCO’s Administration, Mr Nicholas Jeffreys, staff from UNESCO’s information management unit had to be dispatched to open the IT doors for the French agents.
By giving her blessing to this operation targeting UNESCO’s ambassadors and senior international civil servants, the Director General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay carbonized the trust vetted in her by the states members of UNESCO and violated two major treaties: the Vienna Convention and the Host-country Agreement.
The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961 is the international treaty which defines a framework for diplomatic relations and specifies the privileges of a diplomatic mission that enable diplomats to perform their function without fear of coercion or harassment by the host country. It also forms the legal basis for diplomatic immunity. The treaty was adopted on April 18, 1961, by the United Nations Conference on Diplomatic Intercourse and Immunities held in Vienna, Austria, and first implemented on April 24, 1964.
The Convention entered into force for France on January 30, 1971, following the deposit by France of its instruments of ratification on December 31, 1970. Its ratification had been authorized by Law No. 69-1039 of November 20, 1969 (Official Journal of November 21, 1969) and the publication of the Convention was decreed by the President of the French Republic on March 29, 1971.
The other treaty breached is the Agreement between the Government of the French Republic and UNESCO regarding the “Headquarters of UNESCO and the Privileges and Immunities of the Organization on French Territory”, known as the Host-country Agreement. The Government of the French Republic and UNESCO signed it on July 2, 1954. The Agreement stipulates in Article 1 that “The Government of the French Republic recognizes the legal personality of the Organization” and in Article 5 that “The Headquarters shall be under the control and authority of the Organization”.
Besides these two articles setting the framework of the institutional independence of UNESCO, the Director General also infringed Article 6 which asserts that Headquarters shall be inviolable. “Agents and officials of the French Republic shall not enter Headquarters to discharge any official duty save with the consent or at the request of the Director-General” and in accordance with conditions approved by him/her.
As part of her duties, the Director General may indeed consent or request the intervention of French administrators and agents, except that this is normally done in a transparent and licit manner. Moreover, member states are normally kept abreast as well, particularly in case when it concerns the confidentiality of their communication facilities.
The implications of this Parisian style “Watergate” are difficult to even measure at this stage. We have to underline that national security services gaining access to the core IT systems of a UN agency, reportedly for network spying on ambassadors and high-ranking diplomats, is something beyond unusual. It is simply unprecedented.
The dismissal of the senior UNESCO officials involved would be an immediate corrective measure. However, even such a radical step would not preclude calls for the resignation of the Director General Audrey Azoulay.
Subject to the political reactions, the governing bodies and the UN, could create a special investigative commission to look into this violation of UNESCO’s sovereignty.
* * *
Since the beginning of its term, the administration of President Biden is beefing up its involvement with the UN. Biden has so far rejoined several international treaties and organizations, including the Paris climate change agreement and the WHO – both of which were rightfully shunned by President Trump.
Only days ago, the Secretary of State Antony Blinken recommitted the U.S. to rejoining as well the United Nations Human Rights Council, three years after President Trump withdrew over what his administration called bias against Israel.
The latest decisions by President Biden to undo Trump’s legacy of disengaging with international agreements and organizations are ill-advised. The state of affairs at UNESCO is a loudly ringing bell, exemplifying the political miscalculation for America of President’s Biden “the UN First” strategy.