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No Quick Fix Can Make The UN Work Right

From: Shmuel Rosner To: Adam LeBor Dear Adam, Thank you for your letter. I now see that it was probably an error not to first detail more of the stories highlighted in your book, and only then move to ask … Read More

By / June 12, 2008

From: Shmuel Rosner

To: Adam LeBor

Dear Adam,

Thank you for your letter. I now see that it was probably an error not to first detail more of the stories highlighted in your book, and only then move to ask the grand-question of "the UN, an angel or Satan."

So now you corrected my structural mistake, and we can go back to this question. You say that you'd first like to see a "a system of internal UN accountability that calls to account those officials involved in the UN’s failures" – but that is not a real answer to my question.

Or maybe it is; if one wants to see more accountability at the UN headquarters, one can still see the benefit of having the organization function properly. However, this is not an obvious conclusion for the reader of your book. As you rightly blame the permanent five members of the Security Council for failing to meet their duty, you also reveal the incoherence that is inherent to the process necessary to achieving any goal through this paralyzed body.

Consider a problem that we're all familiar with by now, sanctions on Iran. Whether it is wise or not to sanction Iran, whether sanctions can really stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear goals, whether it is even necessary to stop Iran from achieving its goals – all these are beside the point. We are now looking at the mechanism at the heart of every decision reached by the UN, and what you've masterfully detailed in regard to genocide in Rwanda is repeating itself in regard to Iran: an inability to reach a decision and to act upon it decisively that originates with the domestic considerations of the different members, and their conflicting interests in dealing with the world.

In his book A War In A Time Of Peace, the late David Halberstam was quoting an interview with Canadian General Romeo Dallaire – the one commander that was left in the field in Rwanda whom you mention in your letter. "Rarely had a commander at such a tragic venue" writes Haberstam, "been so unsparing of himself, even though his superiors had not listened to his warnings." Here is what Dallaire had to say:

I haven't even started my real mourning of the apathy and the absolute detachment of the international community, and particularly the western world, from the plight of Rwandans. Because fundamentally, to be very candid and soldierly, who the hell cared about Rwanda? I mean, face it. Essentially how many people remember the genocide in Rwanda?… Who comprehends that more people were killed, injured and displaced in three and a half months in Rwanda than in the whole of the Yugoslavian campaign in which we poured sixty thousand troops and the whole of the western world was involved there?

So yes – in theory they are all against murder and rape and violence. I'm sure they are. But you'll have hard time convincing Dallaire that they care enough. Not enough for the Chinese to support a more robust response to stop the atrocities in Darfur, not enough for Russia to stop Slobodan Milosevic, and apparently, not enough for Bill Clinton to support a military response in Rwanda. Washington, wrote Halberstam, "wanted no part of Rwanda. The political fallout from Somalia had caused enough damage."

Damage – political damage at home. And Clinton didn't really move in the Balkans until he was certain that the political damage would be greater if he didn't act, than the possible damage if he did. Political considerations at home were always a decisive factor for any government. When the British government headed by Tony Blair was reluctant to deal with Darfur, you write, "several British members of Parliament began to press the Blair government, which had once proudly announced a new, ethical, foreign policy, on its unwillingness to take a robust stand."

Now, you highlight the fact that careers were not hurt by the failure to prevent
catastrophe, but why would they be if, as you write in the book, "the Secretariat takes its cues from the P5." On the one hand you blame the countries represented at the Security Council, but on the other hand – lacking the means to punish them for their deeds or lack thereof – you want the bureaucrats to pay a price.

So maybe the problem is with the way this system was devised. Maybe we should stop hoping that the UN will somehow miraculously improve, and be more realistic about it. Maybe genocide can only be stopped if someone is willing to pick up the tab and pay the price of stopping it. Maybe sharing the power in a parliament-like world institution is the less efficient way of dealing with the horrors of the world.

And if that is the case – no technical fine-tuning of the way the UN operates can fix the problem. This can only be fixed by an overhaul of the international system. It could be this old-new idea of League of Democracies now promoted by presidential candidate John McCain, or it could be a decision by powerful countries, like the US, or powerful organizations, like NATO, that preventing genocide is a cause important enough as to justify circumventing the UN. This means unilateral action – an idea that was discredited by the Iraq war and that people here have no appetite for.

My grim conclusion will be this: as soon as the next genocide starts to take shape, you can start working on your new book. Unfortunately, it will be very similar to the one you already wrote.

Best,

Shmuel

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