The UN faces irrelevance. It cannot simply assume a moral posture and hope for a better worldby David Rieff / October 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
The truck bomb that destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19th August has been as shocking to the UN as a political community as the events of 11th September were to most Americans. Hyperbole? No one who witnessed the outpouring of emotion at UN headquarters in New York or Geneva would think so. But the depth of grief and outrage engendered by the murder of Kofi Annan’s special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 of his UN colleagues, goes beyond the fact that, trite as it may sound, most UN staffers think of themselves as belonging to a sort of extended family. More crucially, they regard themselves as working not just for an institution (as people tend to do at the World Bank or the IMF) but as serving a cause. That cause, as a surprising number of them will say without a trace of irony, is the cause of humanity.
It is easy for an outsider to be cynical about the UN. The end of the cold war had encouraged absurdly high hopes for the organisation, hopes that were cruelly deflated by the triple peacekeeping disasters of Somalia (1993), Rwanda (1994) and Bosnia (1992-95). UN peacekeeping had many successes in the past, from Cyprus to Cambodia, and its peacekeeping department won a Nobel prize in 1988. But in Bosnia the moral limits of the peacekeeping ethos were exposed to the world. UN officials refused to accept that they had an obligation to take the Bosnian-that is, the victims’ side-against the government in Belgrade and its Bosnian Serb surrogates. They hewed to the most exquisite neutrality, insisting that this is what their security council mandate demanded.
For an organisation that continued, at the time, to insist that it was morally superior to the governments it served-the bureaucratic arm of the world’s transcendental values, as Michael Barnett, an American scholar who worked for the UN on Rwanda, put it-this was an astonishing position to take. Later, too late for the 250,000 who died during the Bosnian conflict, the UN admitted as much. In its self-lacerating report on the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, it concluded that there had been a “pervasive ambivalence within the UN regarding the role of force in the pursuit of peace” and “an institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide.”