Official and diplomatic travel documents do not fit the mould of citizen documents. How do issuance authorities cope with managing these documents to ensure they are only used in the official capacity for which they are intended? Elizabeth O’Rourke of the United Nations shares some lessons learned and current tactics in hopes of opening a wider dialogue on the topic.
What is the problem with official and diplomatic travel documents? How can the citizen passport model be applied to government employees who are only authorised to carry a document while conducting official business? Unlike the official and diplomatic classes of documents, citizens rarely lose their right to carry a passport. While there are many valid legal reasons to revoke a citizen’s travel document, freedom of movement is an enshrined human right that is not easily rescinded. In contrast, the populations who are issued official and diplomatic documents do not have the same entitlement to use them at will.
There is a lot of discussion in the travel documents community regarding securing the travel document application process. Tremendous effort is put into validating identity and citizenship as the primary eligibility criteria. However these criteria, once established, are relatively static. Provided no outstanding criminal act, surrender or revocation of citizenship rights, there is no reason why a legitimately issued travel document should not be used for its entire validity period. Furthermore, once a citizen holds a passport it can be used for any sort of travel; whereas an official or diplomatic passport should only be used when travelling in an official capacity.
The management of official and diplomatic documents is of keen interest of the United Nations. When asking other issuance authorities about their procedures, the response is usually an exacerbated sigh. These documents, while critical to the diplomatic functions of a government, can often be the bane of its passport authority. This small fraction of issuance volume becomes inherently problematic because it doesn’t fit the mould of a citizen passport. To be an International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) compliant travel document, it must have a fixed validity, but how long will this official be eligible to use it? How are cases of separation from service before the document expires handled? What is preventing individuals from using documents to benefit or expedite private travel? Or, in the case of a country that requires foreign residency visas to be placed in the official document, how can that person avoid using the document when returning from private travel?
In the United Nations, there is no citizen population. Holders of Laissez-Passer (the official travel document of the United Nations family of organisations) fall into the ‘official’ or ‘diplomatic’ categories. This puts the United Nations at a unique advantage when it comes to vetting applicants. Well-defined national passports are used as breeder documents, and background checks upon employment, administrative links to payroll and other benefits add a social footprint context. Finally, there is a defined chain of trusted officers who personally work with, and vouch for each applicant’s identity, photo and eligibility. While the United Nations is always seeking to safeguard the enrolment process to the highest degree, this is the best controlled part of the travel document life cycle.
Unlike countries who deal primarily with a large and difficult to vet citizen population, the United Nations situation is unique. The primary struggle is finding the delicate balance between defining a useful duration for document validity versus the possibility of the bearer losing eligibility to carry the document before that time.
Prior to the formal adoption of machine readable travel documents (MRTDs) as an international standard in 2010, the United Nations strategy to combat the validity problem was to issue the documents for no longer than the applicant’s appointment (or contract) duration. Due to the shifting needs and mandates of the United Nations family of organisations, most staff hold appointments of six months to two years. However, it is very common for these short contracts to be renewed over and over again, or for staff on expiring posts in one area to move to new posts in a completely different administrative area. Issuing an individual a new travel document every six months proved entirely impractical. Frequent replacements are especially problematic when the staff who need to carry these travel documents most, are infact working in the most volatile areas of the world, and need to have a valid document on their person at all times in case of a security evacuation.
The solution was to allow these documents to be physically renewed locally. The highest official in each country was trusted with the stamp necessary to extend the validity period of a Laissez-Passer. The requirement was that the renewal officer must report each renewal to one of the central issuance offices for recording in the central system, and not extend any document for more than 10 years past its issuance date. With any widely distributed system such as this, the rules were exceptionally difficult to enforce. Furthermore, with the rise of global terrorism, it became evident that this mechanism was not only extremely difficult to administer, but opened the United Nations travel document to the possibility of fraudulent renewals. The open-ended validity might have even made it a more valuable target to the criminal element. What was intended to safeguard these documents against misuse became the most vulnerable point for abuse.
Cultivate a culture of accountability
Although the Laissez-Passer was MRTD-compliant in most other ways, the variable expiry date was holding the United Nations back from meeting the 2010 deadline. A number of other factors aligned, and it was decided that the timing was right to adopt an e-Passport style document while upgrading to MRTD compliance. This dramatic change gave the United Nations travel documents office the momentum to change the culture of the entire Laissez-Passer system.
The first step was to abolish the practice of renewing travel documents in order to meet the mandate. Initially, it seemed counterintuitive to issue a travel document that would be valid well past the official’s contract appointment. Once the potential vulnerability of renewing the documents was explained, it was accepted as a tactic to strengthen the security profile of the Laissez-Passer.
The real battle, however, was to insist administrative offices be accountable for all the documents held by their staff. They must be regularly inventoried like any organisational asset, similar to a laptop or mobile phone. The long-standing rule of withholding final pay until Laissez-Passers are surrendered must now be strictly enforced. The presumed safety net that the document would expire in accordance with the latest contract is no longer available. Now the United Nations travel documents office issues regular reports to the administrative offices listing all of the documents held by their staff. Because they are better situated to interact with the staff, it is the responsibility of these administrative officers to verify that inventory and rectify any inaccuracies. This has proved useful for the administrative offices as well. Now administrative officers can quickly reference the reports to view the travel documents currently held by their staff, including expiration dates, when making decisions for official travel.
While administrative offices are responsible for accounting Laissez-Passers held by their staff as assets, the staff who carry them are also routinely reminded of the importance of holding these travel documents to the highest standard. United Nations staff who work in the most vulnerable areas of the world, are keenly aware of the protections the Laissez-Passer offers them. This document proves their coverage under the convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations or its Specialized Agencies, and will protect them from prosecution for carrying out their official duties. Every opportunity is taken to remind all staff who carry the Laissez-Passer, as well as the administrative officers accountable for them, that any misuse of these documents, even for something as seemingly trivial as for private travel, tarnishes the reputation of the document and puts their colleagues at grave risk.
Use all tools available, technical and manual
Another method the United Nations employs to minimise the occurrence of misuse, is to permit staff to hold documents only for the duration of their official travel. This solution is ideal for staff who travel sporadically and are stationed in an area where having a travel document on their person at all times is not necessary. The two issuance stations operate as central safekeeping sites for any Laissez-Passer. Additionally, each duty station is encouraged to manage its own safekeeping scheme for those staff who travel frequently enough that it is not feasible to ship the docu-ments back to one of the issuance offices.
Once the shift was made from a renewable document to a fixed five-year validity, another economical use for safekeeping presented itself. After observing the pattern of staff movement, a very common scenario emerged. Often an individual would separate from one part of the organisation only to return or begin work in another administrative area within a year of their separation. One of the two issuance offices would receive a document to be cancelled, only to receive another request to issue a new one to the same individual well within the validity period of the cancelled original. Now, space permitting, each issuance office will hold surrendered documents in safekeeping for at least a year. The separating staff are issued a receipt to prove surrender of the document and that it was safe kept, which will allow them to fulfil their check-out requirements and receive final pay.
As part of the United Nations’ custom enrolment software, a variety of fuzzy algorithms are used to spot prior document holders as new application data are entered. Logic is built in to prevent an individual from holding multiple documents at once. Even if a staff member forgets to request their old document out of safekeeping and instead requests a new document, the processors will see the valid one in safekeeping while entering the new application data. At that point the processor can either release the old document, or in the case of a change of data page information (such as a name), they must physically cancel the safe kept Laissez-Passer before issuing a new document.
Interpol SLTD database
Another critical tool to combat the misuse of these official and diplomatic travel documents is the Interpol Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database. The United Nations is proud to participate in this extremely valuable database that allows member states to inter-cept lost and stolen documents being used to cross borders. On average the United Nations report one to three Laissez-Passers per month as lost or stolen to Interpol for inclusion in the database. This is typically the result of a robbery or loss of a bag containing the document. Now that same mechanism is used to report the Laissez-Passers of staff who failed to surrender them upon separation, because essentially the document is stolen from the United Nations. Part of staff education efforts centre around making it clear that even though the official’s photo is printed inside of it, the Laissez-Passer is the property of the United Nations.
Those who are tasked with managing official and diplomatic travel documents need a well-defined method to ensure these documents are only used appropriately. Much like enrolment, it’s an evolving process that is ever improving as better tools become available. For instance, the United Nations Secretariat is in the midst of deploying an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) tool which, for the first time, will bring global human resources (HR) data into one modern software system in real time. Without abandoning any of the manual tools already in place, an interface was built between the Laissez-Passer lifecycle management software and the ERP system. As Laissez-Passers are distributed to staff, placed in and out of safekeeping, physically cancelled or reported to Interpol as stolen or lost, the details of the Laissez-Passer are updated in the HR profile of the bearer in the ERP system. This further streamlines the check-out procedures for separating staff and allows administrative officers to take greater accountability for the documents held by the staff they serve.
It seems there will never be a perfect solution to the problem of managing the lifecycle of official and diplo-matic travel documents. For now, a mix of educating staff, enforcing administrative accountability, and employing all of the tools available, is the current best formula for the United Nations. In the continual re-evaluation of these processes, it would be useful to be able to compare the United Nations formula with the lessons learned and best practices of the global travel document issuance authority community. Now that the technical aspects of MRTDs and e‑MRTDs are reaching maturity, and the international community is openly sharing lessons learned in the enrolment process, perhaps this is the perfect time to add official and diplomatic travel document lifecycle management to the conversation.
Elizabeth O’Rourke has been involved with the United Nations Laissez-Passer (UNLP) Programme for ten years, and holds the post of Travel Documents Systems Officer. She represents the United Nations as a travel document issuing authority to the International Civil Aviation Organization and as a member of the Public Key Directory. She is the architect of the United Nations’ custom Travel Document management software and served as project manager for the upgrade to the electronic UNLP.