Black comedy, blue helmets and red-faced shame

We Did Nothing

May 23, 2003

This is a disturbing book. In it, Linda Polman records her experiences with three United Nations peacekeeping operations - Somalia and Haiti in 1994 and Rwanda in 1995. That listing denotes the two most tragic examples of the international community's failure to resolve horrendous conflicts in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people died terrible deaths, while the third operation in Haiti only partially achieved its aims of bringing stability to a desperately poor country long tyrannised by murderous thugs.

The title and the cover say it all: We Did Nothing is blazoned over a UN blue helmet scrawled with the graffiti UNarmed, UNable and UNeasy. The first is an incorrect statement since Blue Helmet operations are always armed (as opposed to Blue Beret observer missions) and all three examples chosen were armed missions. The clear implication is that the UN is useless, a familiar chant in these Iraq-obsessed times. The subtitle claims the book to be "The Untold Story of the Modern Battle for Peace", but the horrors of these three events have been amply documented - that of Rwanda in a searing, self-castigating report published by the UN itself.

Polman is a courageous journalist with forthright opinions and a genuine, deeply felt concern for the ordinary people caught up in these cataclysmic events. I confess to some irritation on reading the section on Somalia, which seems to ascribe the basest motives to all the actors on the scene, including the soldiers of many nations who were facing extreme danger. This was not my experience when I headed the ill-fated UN peacekeeping mission Unavem II in Angola in 1992-93. Doomed from the start by an inadequate mandate and scant resources, it culminated in renewed war. However, I have nothing but praise for the bravery and commitment of most of the military contingents from 24 countries, including some on whom Polman pours scorn.

She has the journalist's eye for the striking detail and is adept at singling out instances of black comedy in the midst of looming tragedy, particularly in the section about Haiti. I laughed out loud at her description of the US Army's arrival: the press corps is dining on a restaurant terrace when an American patrol "prowls past the tables... They are in square formation, so that all flanks are covered. The soldier charged with the rear is obliged to walk backwards. His buddies have linked arms and are pulling him behind them. For a moment our eyes meet. In his, doubt: Do I look a total asshole walking backwards through all you good-timers? Or are you all snipers, disguised as good-timers?"

There are no lighter moments in Rwanda. It is a harrowing tale of senseless slaughter, interspersed with moments of unbearable pathos and human anguish. The reader is inexorably transported into endless scenes of horror until the final dawn when the hillside at Kibeho is strewn with the mangled corpses of thousands of Hutu refugees. Here the author concedes that some of those entrusted with the hopeless task of protecting these terrified people without proper back-up made almost superhuman efforts to save lives against insuperable odds. She pays tribute to the valiant UN forces from Zambia, alongside whom she herself worked tirelessly. The terrifying inevitability of the tragedy would have been brought out even more forcefully had she mentioned the desperate but unsuccessful efforts made by ambassador Shaharya Khan, the special representative of the UN secretary general, to bring help from outside. He merits only a glancing reference, encountered earlier, en route to see the few surviving gorillas in the Parc National des Volcans. That makes him sound like a tourist when in fact he was a devoted and able international civil servant who wrote movingly of his own experiences in his book The Shallow Graves of Rwanda .

Polman draws attention to the deficiencies she detected in UN peacekeeping operations in the mid 1990s: unclear mandates, inadequate resources and wide differences between the training and equipment standards of countries providing troops. She rails against the restriction of the use of force except in self-defence "even when... authorities start slaughtering thousands of people under blue helmets' noses" and the consequences of the strict application of the principles of national sovereignty and non-intervention, citing as a signal example the tragedy enacted at Srebrenica in Bosnia.

Although this book is a revised edition of a text originally published in Dutch in 1997, Polman omits any reference to the steps taken to address many of these problems in the intervening six years. The planning, organisation, staffing and logistics of UN peacekeeping operations have been significantly improved as a result of the report prepared by an international group chaired by ambassador Lakhtar Brahimi.

Questions of sovereignty and non-intervention are more difficult since we still live in a world of nation-states, but there has been some movement.

In an annual report to the UN General Assembly, secretary-general Kofi Annan suggested that intervention could be justified in cases of desperate human suffering or gross abuse of human rights. Rwanda was a terrible lesson to the world, which must not again stand powerlessly by while genocide is perpetrated. As for the use of force other than in self-defence, this has always been permitted in peacekeeping operations mandated by the Security Council under chapter VII of the UN Charter, according to specific rules of engagement. Now Security Council resolutions authorising operations under chapter VI routinely include a clause permitting necessary action to afford protection to civilians facing imminent threat of physical violence - a provision that would have saved many lives in the past.

Polman singles out the constant clamour for reform of the UN, linked to the withholding of major contributions, as an important factor undermining the efficiency of the organisation and bringing it to the brink of bankruptcy, as recorded in a Reuters report of May 1996, which she quotes. As someone involved in planning and carrying out those reforms, I can testify to the great damage done by the withholding of the US contribution over a number of years. Even when we effected the changes demanded, and despite several drastic reductions of staff, our efforts did not result in the payment of the huge arrears but simply led to new demands. That situation has at last been rectified but, as Polman points out, UN resources are pathetically small in relation to the immense task it is expected to do in maintaining global peace and security. Its budget, she says, is "equivalent to what Americans spend at the florist each year" ("Peanuts per capita") and it employs "fewer people worldwide than the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi".

Her claim that "national interests always prevail above (international) UN goals" remains true today, as was all too evident in the Security Council debates about Iraq, and this is a phenomenon the organisation will have to live with until the impact of globalisation and of dangers that transcend national frontiers - terrorism, Aids, Sars, to name but a few - forces governments into greater commitment to collective action. More than once Polman quotes President Bill Clinton's reproach to the UN in October 1993 for repeatedly shouldering tasks that were too heavy for it. "The UN should learn to say no" was his advice. Four months previously I had given exactly the same counsel to then secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali as one of the main lessons I had drawn from the under-mandated and under-resourced mission in Angola that I was then leaving. But that is easier said than done, as Boutros-Ghali found out in trying to apply Clinton's maxim when the Security Council significantly reduced the number of UN troops the secretary-general deemed necessary for the mission in eastern Slavonia.

Clinton's permanent representative to the UN, ambassador Madeleine Albright, accused him of dereliction of duty and the UN was obliged to undertake the mission with fewer resources than it considered necessary to do the job. The UN is constantly caught in a cleft stick, damned if it does and damned if it doesn't.

Polman's concern about "how the world's most powerful countries manipulate the UN to fulfil their own national interests" is disturbingly topical. It also conveys the impression that she believes that the UN is a necessary organisation that should be strengthened. But this message is never explicitly stated, and the picture painted in the three vignettes can be interpreted by UN sceptics as further proof of their view that the organisation is useless and fatally flawed. Rather than a book, this is a compilation of essays. I would like to have seen some recognition that these deal with probably the worst and most tragic failures of the UN - not for that any more excusable - and that the organisation has had successes.

It would have been helpful, too, had there been a final section spelling out the author's conclusions, including suggestions for remedial action, instead of partial and sometimes confusing messages scattered throughout the text.

There are also some errors of fact. The UN is not on the Hudson River but on the East River, on the other side of Manhattan. Nor was Somalia "the largest and most expensive UN operation ever". The first UN programme, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration set up at the end of the second world war to repair the ravages of war in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and China still holds that record at today's costs. And it was, incidentally, a success. In purely peacekeeping terms, Cambodia was much larger, in mandate and resources.

Nevertheless, this book will be of great interest to UN watchers and to all those who are determined the tragedies so dramatically described in it are never forgotten and that all possible measures are taken to see that the international community will never let such shame be perpetrated again. The Congo will be an acid test of that resolve. All of this means building a stronger and more effective UN, supported not only by the governments of the member states but also by their peoples.

Dame Margaret Anstee is a former United Nations under secretary-general.

We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn't Always Come Out When the UN Goes In

Author - Linda Polman
ISBN - 0 670 91424 X
Publisher - Viking
Price - £12.99
Pages - 234
Translator - Rob Bland

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