Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The UN and its Discontents

This review of Samantha Power's new book in the Nation is really excellent.
Samantha Power became one of my favorite public intellectuals for her first book A Problem from Hell, which is a brilliant indictment of US inaction and callousness in the face of genocide. It has lengthy chapters on Kurdistan, Cambodia, and especially the former Yugoslavia, of which Power has first-hand experience (Bangladesh, perhaps the most egregious and little-know example, is briefly mentioned).
Even when the book was written, there were some problems. She demonstrated that our current policies are callous and unjust, but when is it right to invade? Can the US police the world?
In the aftermath of Iraq, it seems increasingly unlikely that the US can be the world's policeman. So Samantha Power has turned to the UN, and has profile someone who she sees as an international statesman: Vieira de Mello, who eventually met a tragic demise in the Baghdad UN headquarters .
Power first met Vieira de Mello in 1994, when she was a young freelance journalist covering the former Yugoslavia and he was a senior adviser to the UN peacekeeping force there. "A cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy" is how one of her colleagues described him, and over dinner at a seafood restaurant in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, she was immediately smitten--with his intellect, his charm and his dedication to the principles for which the UN stands. In Chasing the Flame, Power casts Vieira de Mello as a model internationalist whose career is rich in lessons for our conflict-ridden world.

However, as one reads the reveal, one realizes how morally ambiguous Mello is. He has cozied up to authoritarian leaders, and has been complicit in the very crimes that were denounced in A Problem from Hell.
She is less equivocal in describing Vieira de Mello's next posting, to Bosnia. When he arrived in Sarajevo in 1993, the city was under siege from Serb snipers and shells. Eager to persuade the Serbs to let relief supplies through, Vieira de Mello set out to engage Serb leaders, especially Radovan Karadzic, an architect of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. Before the war, Vieira de Mello knew, Karadzic had worked as a psychiatrist. Before one of their meetings, Vieira de Mello picked up a copy of The New York Review of Books that had a long article in it about psychiatry; at the meeting, he presented it to Karadzic as a gift. In their discussions, Karadzic would go on endlessly about Serb grievances dating back to the fourteenth century. With his friends, Vieira de Mello vented his irritation, but with the man himself he remained studiously silent lest he lose his confidence.

The Serbs did let some supplies through, but their gunners kept pounding the city. Some UN officials wanted the peacekeepers to take a firmer stand and challenge the Serbs militarily. Vieira de Mello adamantly opposed such a course, maintaining that it would violate the UN's neutrality and thus harm its broader humanitarian goals. "Impartiality was so central to his understanding of the essence of UN peacekeeping," Power writes, "that he refused journalists' requests to state which party bore the greatest responsibility for the carnage." In the face of such passivity, The Economist labeled the UN "an armour-plated meals-on-wheels service"; others accused it of "passing out sandwiches at the gates of Auschwitz."
Power's chapter on Vieira de Mello's time in Bosnia (which is based on her eyewitness research) is devastating, and after reading it I fully expected her to draw the obvious conclusion--that his vaunted pragmatism too often degenerated into simple amorality. But this she refuses to do. Clinging to her image of him as an exemplar of diplomacy and multilateralism, she instead chooses to stress how much he learned from his and the UN's mistakes in Bosnia. Upon hearing of the slaughter at Srebrenica, she notes, Vieira de Mello expressed shock and--finally seeing the light--embraced NATO intervention (outside the UN structure) as the only way out of the morass.
One of the most revealing moments in Chasing the Flame comes in the introduction, where Power describes that initial meeting with Vieira de Mello at the restaurant in Zagreb. Toward the end of the meal, Vieira de Mello reaches into the breast pocket of his elegantly tailored blazer and pulls out a battered piece of paper. It contains the section of the Security Council resolution on the Balkans that set up the six "safe areas" in the region, the only formal instructions that Vieira de Mello and his fellow peacekeepers ever received. Vieira de Mello directs Power's attention to a set of commas in the text. "Look at this," he says heatedly. "The resolution says we should 'comma--acting in self-defense--comma--take the necessary measures--comma--including the use of force' to respond to attacks against civilians!" The vagueness of this infuriated him: "What are the commas supposed to mean? Does it mean the UN should only use force in self-defense? Or does it mean we should use force in self-defense and also to protect the Bosnians?" To devote so much energy and attention to a few ambiguous marks of punctuation while defenseless civilians were being slaughtered all around him seems the height of bureaucratic futility.

The career of Sergio de Mello is and the failure of the UN in Bosnia is a microcosm of the larger problems in the UN. From the start, the UN was hamstrung, held back by the European powers and America, who squabbled amongst themselves and generally didn't want to be involved. The worst moment was when, after declaring Srebrenica a safe-zone, could only watch as the Army of the Republika Sprska murdered 8,000 Bosniaks.
In America, we critique the UN as being "unresponsive" and to likely to endanger US sovereignty. The truth is the opposite. I serious critique can be made of the UN, but it should be critiqued as not willing to stand up to oppressors and to submissive to great powers such as the US. This critique is little heard in the silly discourse of our country, so the review is especially refreshing.

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