Examining the United Nations’ Role in Settling Conflicts
Insider journalism leaves too many questions unasked and unanswered.
The 1990’s illustrate the pitfalls for those who would name the trends. The era opened with the fall of Communism in Russia and Europe, an epochal event that those at the center of power failed to anticipate, analyze or digest. Equally unanticipated was the horrendous series of atrocities in places such as Bosnia and Rwanda. Major governments responded slowly and ineptly. In time, increasing signs of regression being transformed into barbarism prompted more effective responses.
In this ambitious book William Shawcross—the author of “Sideshow,” an excoriating account of Henry Kissinger’s policy in Cambodia which won the George Polk Award for reporting—charts the man-made humanitarian disasters of the decade just ended. He calls them “endless conflicts” devised by “warlords,” implying that they are but secondary threats to world order. Yet as his title also suggests, massive eruptions of state-sponsored crime are an outburst of evil in our time, and while no major power has direct interests at stake, conflicts such as these disturb the equilibrium so much that something has to be done about them.
In his search for what Shawcross calls a “global architecture” to address “postmodern wars,” the narrative jumps from Cambodia to Iraq, from Somalia to Rwanda, and Bosnia to Sierra Leone, paralleling the travels of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The premise seems to be that to the extent these conflicts can be addressed at all, the United Nations holds the key with such tools as U.N. peacekeepers and the organization of elections. The problem with this perspective (and I should mention that Shawcross contributed to “Crimes of War,” a new book which I co-edited; in turn, he lists me in his acknowledgments) is that the U.N. system during the early 1990’s proved to be a house of cards, not of reinforced concrete. The U.N., as a global institution, was as incapable of addressing the issues as the governments that provided the building materials.
The world-view here is purveyed by what the book jacket calls “global policymakers,” which translates roughly into U.N. officials. Among them is Yasushi Akashi of Japan, who served as top U.N. administrator in both Kampuchea and in Bosnia; Shawcross not only traveled on Akashi’s helicopter in Cambodia but also talked to him a good deal about Bosnia. This is the same man who was in charge of all U.N. civilian personnel and military forces, and the communications between them and U.N. headquarters during the Serbs’ destruction of Srebrenica, a U.N.-declared safe area. What emerges is perhaps the only account that relates Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II from the perspective of the man directly responsible for keeping the world’s promise of protection.
It is of interest to read Akashi, in a memo to Annan, then Under-Secretary for Peacekeeping, circumspectly pulling the plug on Srebrenica as it is about to fall. “It is essential now for members of the Security Council to focus on humanitarian assistance, rather than suggesting, even obliquely, that the status quo ante can be re-established,” Akashi wrote. Shawcross lets this stand without comment, and this points to the big pitfall of “insider” journalism as opposed to the investigative variety. One would hope that a widely admired author like anyone else has a conscience that jangles as he boards the aircraft of the responsible high officials. They have an inside story to tell, but is it the story? How likely are we to challenge those who offer such hospitality? And are high-level briefings ever a substitute for the facts gathered the hard way at the ground level?
The tough questions do not seem to get asked in this account, which contains far too many controversial judgments not backed up by documents or footnotes. Moreover, Shawcross all but deifies U.N. officials. Of course the title, “Deliver Us From Evil,” is the giveaway, for the prayer is directed not to the Lord but to Annan. The Secretary-General, according to Shawcross, is the “secular pope…charged with the moral leadership of the world,” and “the repository of hope and the representative of such civilized standards of international behavior as we have been able to devise.”
The prone posture produces flat exchanges. “You’re negotiating all the time between different levels of evil, aren’t you?” Shawcross asks Annan early in 1999 after they discussed the situations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Iraq. The setting is a hotel room in Davos, Switzerland, a less magical mountain, perhaps, than it once was, yet the right place for such a question. “This is the problem and they are constantly shifting,” Annan replies. “It looks like a terrifying ride,” observes Shawcross. “It is a terrifying ride!” Annan affirms.
That is the discourse. There is no follow-up. One wishes he had pursued the thought: “Are you doing the right thing in negotiating with levels of evil? Where does it lead? Can you deliver anyone from evil if you don’t stop the evil? Are you perpetuating evil by negotiating with it?”
This is not to say that Annan is not already the best Secretary-General since Dag Hammarskjold, rather that the U.N. constitutionally is an imperfect instrument led even by a gifted statesman. The questions not asked point to the contradiction at the heart of this book. U.N. officials, if they lack the threat of force to back up diplomatic goals, have little choice but to allow the stronger side to work its will, adjust the diplomacy to the realities, and offer to mediate. Even if one side commits genocide, it is irrelevant, for moral judgment has to be tailored to the means available. But this approach simply does not work. The U.N.’s very weakness telegraphs itself both to the perpetrator and victim, each of whom sees no choice but to pursue the death struggle. Thus those acting in the name of ending crime may instead be prolonging it.
Nothing better illustrates this than David Owen’s admonition to Bosnians to surrender to ethnic cleansing in early 1993. Owen was the envoy of the European Community, whose members dominated the Security Council during most of the Bosnian war. He was personally familiar with the details of ethnic cleansing, for he had taken a brief trip to Banja Luka in late summer 1992 and received a full account of deportations, mass killing in concentration camps, and other crimes against humanity. Owen’s solution, tailored to the means available, was an ethnic division of Bosnia by cantons that legitimized the crime. His peace plan, coauthored by Cyrus Vance, the former U.S. Secretary of State, had no security annex and no agreement on implementation. It relied for enforcement on Serbs, and to a lesser extent Croats, who together had the weapons and the willingness to use them in war crimes.
According to Shawcross, the Muslim-led Bosnian government “stalled” and the United States “undercut” the plan. This led Owen to warn the Bosnians: “Don’t, don’t, don’t live under this dream that the West is going to come in and sort this problem out. Don’t dream dreams.” That may have been a realistic assessment of international politics at the time, but it was the abandonment of principle and humanitarian law. Ethnic cleansing was the evil from which millions of innocent civilians needed delivering, and Owen, on behalf of the U.N. and world community, was doing the exact opposite. Shawcross renders no judgment on Owen’s cynical dismissal of the fate of Bosnia and its people; his statement marked a low point in U.N. leadership from which the organization has yet to recover fully.
If one lesson might be drawn from the 1990’s, it is that just as domestic laws require enforcement, “deliverance from evil” internationally requires the willingness to use force. In the second half of the decade, NATO, led by the United States, began to make that point. In Bosnia, NATO stopped the conflict but failed to resolve the underlying issues, but the West created the Hague Tribunal to determine accountability for the crimes. NATO’s twin actions of 1999—its expansion into East Central Europe and its intervention in Kosovo—set in place a security structure that can prevent future Bosnias in East Central Europe. Bosnia, divided along ethnic lines, with two armies, police forces, and legal orders and thereby unworkable as a state, remains unfinished business, but NATO intervened in Kosovo and may act again in Montenegro.
The dreams of the early 1990’s are slowly becoming reality a few years later. So in this and nearly every other case that Shawcross cites of “evil” in our time, the question to ask is whether he has given the right address for his prayer.
Roy Gutman is a reporter in the Newsday Washington bureau and President of the Crimes of War Education Project based at American University, whose goal is to familiarize the media and the public with the laws of war.
Nothing is harder to do well in foreign affairs coverage than to spot and define the big trends as they unfold. Those reporting from the center of power, whether columnists or “name” journalists who circulate on the power dinner circuit, may be tempted to ignore the facts and let personal belief or sources with their own political agenda be their guide. And reporters in the field, engrossed in unearthing the raw data of policy failure, do not readily pull back to focus on the big picture.