David Rieff questioned the UN's relevance. Not very constructive, says a UN officialby Edward Mortimer / November 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
“It is easy for an outsider to be cynical about the UN.” David Rieff should know. He has been more cynical than most. His article (Prospect, October) contained a number of familiar jibes, but overall it marked a welcome departure from his previous tone. He thinks UN officials, including Kofi Annan, are acknowledging for the first time that everything is not OK. From our perspective, Rieff is acknowledging, for almost the first time, that we are not self-deluding hypocrites but people who have chosen to work in an imperfect institution, in the hope of being able to improve its performance.
Few UN officials today – and certainly not Annan – would defend the UN’s record in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s. On the UN’s role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Annan commissioned and accepted an independent report, which flayed the secretariat, including Annan, for ignoring warnings from its commander on the spot, but said remarkably little about the behaviour of members of the security council, notably the US and Britain, who manoeuvred to avoid even using the word “genocide” lest it be held to give them a legal obligation to intervene under the 1948 genocide convention.
On the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, Annan was required by the general assembly to produce his own report, which Rieff accurately describes as “self-lacerating.” What Rieff does not mention is Annan’s words when he handed over responsibility to the Nato-led implementation force in Sarajevo in December 1995: “Each of us as an individual has to take his or her share of responsibility. No one can claim ignorance of what happened. All of us should recall how we responded, and ask: What did I do? Could I have done more? Did I let my prejudice, my indifference, or my fear overwhelm my reasoning? Above all, how would I react next time?”
This last question, addressed to himself and to the UN as a whole, has been the leitmotif of Annan’s secretary generalship. In 1998 he warned that “next time may already be here,” referring to Milosevic’s attacks on civilians in Kosovo, which so vividly recalled the tactics used in Croatia and Bosnia earlier in the decade. He claimed to feel confident that if this time peaceful means did not stop the violence, “the security council will not be slow to assume its responsibility.”
Alas, the security council did no such thing. In…