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Is There Any Hope For The UN To Do Good?

In researching Complicity with Evil, Adam LeBor discovered that the three great killing fields of the last decade—Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur—were not only ravaged by murderous convulsions (still ongoing in the case of Darfur), but abetted in doing so by … Read More

By / June 9, 2008

In researching Complicity with Evil, Adam LeBor discovered that the three great killing fields of the last decade—Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur—were not only ravaged by murderous convulsions (still ongoing in the case of Darfur), but abetted in doing so by the appalling negligence of the United Nations, which sat idle without shutting the killing fields down. LeBor's bleak conclusion is that the UN, at present, is simply incapable of fulfilling its foundational obligation to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." Shmuel Rosner, Haaretz's chief U.S. correspondent, has seen his share of war-zones as well, and explores the questions of genocide, the duty to stop evil, and the legitimacy of international institutions with LeBor in the dialogue below.

From: Shmuel Rosner

To: Adam LeBor

Dear Adam,

That is one depressing book.

Complicity with Evil you call it, but it is also complicity with hypocrisy, with cynicism. "The United Nations in the age of modern genocide" is an example of complicity with mediocrity. Your book is the story of an institution incapable of doing the one task that is important enough to justify its less than obviously justified existence. A depressing book. I will recommend it to anyone who's still idealistic enough, or naïve enough, or stupid enough, to think that the United Nations has the power of moral authority. Amazingly, I do meet such people from time to time.

This story has been told before in many ways. How the world failed to defend the people of Srebrenica, and the people of Rwanda, and the people of Darfur. Samantha Power, in her masterful work, A Problem From Hell, was pointing at America and asking, essentially, the questions you're asking now. Her work was extraordinary, but I find yours more persuasive in at least one respect. That is, one can claim that America has no duty to stop all evil, and that its policies are justifiably aimed at maximizing American interests. But one can not say the same of the United Nations.

You make this point right at the beginning of this book: "If the United Nations, whose very raison d'être is the maintenance of international peace and security, does not bare some responsibility for failing to stop the slaughters… than who does?"

The power of this book is the way it assembles the details, the everyday decisions
that made genocide possible. "Bosnia could not be saved because it was small and mountainous. Darfur cannot be saved because it is large and flat." A couple of months ago, writing for Slate about Darfur, I angered some activists by stating that "The campaign to save Darfur is alive, but it is no longer kicking. You could say that it has achieved all its stated goals: public awareness, international pressure, congressional action, the administration's involvement. Well, all but one: The crisis in Darfur is not yet solved, and the campaign to save Darfur is running out of options."

Sadly, I do not see a reason to change even one word in that paragraph. But after reading your book I now understand even better why this campaign—to save Darfur—was probably doomed to fail before it even started.

When I was interviewing President Bush in mid May at the Oval Office, one of the questions he was asked referred to recent events in Lebanon: "We have in place U.N. resolutions, Security Council resolutions that were meant to deal with the problem of Hezbollah. Nevertheless, it has not seemed to help." Unfortunately, only by translating the President's body language to words can one convey his response. "If you're going to pass a resolution, you better mean it," he said. In the case of Lebanon—a country suffering from the aggression of Hezbollah, but that cannot be compared to a country in which a genocide in taking place—the UN has proved incompetent. In many ways, this incompetence is no different in nature than the ones you describe in your book. The UN is hesitant whenever there's an aggressor involved, whenever there's a threat of violence involved. The UN can only keep the peace in places of—well—relative peace.

But here is the question I have for you, the expert on UN incompetence. It is actually
a dilemma on which I also wrote in the past. Reading your book, one might conclude that what the world needs is a more vigorous, more determined world body. But I have my doubts, and the reason is simple: I do not believe such body will be more moral—and if I do not trust it to be more moral, why would I want it to be more competent?

Here is the way I framed it, writing to an Israeli audience about the Security Council, Lebanon and Iran:

A powerful and effective Security Council is a double-edged sword. More than once in the past Israel benefited from the fact that the council did not press for the implementation of resolutions less favorable to it. The U.S. administration, which has a complex relation with the UN and its institutions as well, also faces a similar dilemma… Use the Security Council for your needs, but do not seek to make it more powerful than necessary so that it will not turn around and bite you.

So: this will be my question for this first session of our dialogue: Do you want a more efficient UN, or would you prefer a more robust response against genocide from countries like the US, while giving up on this righteous-UN idea once and for all?

Best,

Shmuel

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