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Behind the Blue Helmets | The Nation

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Behind the Blue Helmets

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However, an effective idealist has to be realistic, and Picco is all of that. He had the fortune to be in at the beginning of a newly activist role for the UN as an institution, rather than as an arena for others to stage their combats. Dag Hammarskjöld is often taken as the very model of a modern Secretary General, but he was in fact an activist aberration. Almost a proto-New Ager, he was able to get up the nostrils of both sides in the cold war, which gave him a freedom of maneuver but persuaded the Security Council never to repeat the experience.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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Even so, as Picco says, the office of Secretary General had "a particular value compared with intergovernmental bodies or individual states, especially when both sides seemed to be groping for a middleman to unlock them from intractable positions." That perspective proved critical on a diplomatic mission in 1991, when, after Picco had been hustled hooded through the back streets of Beirut, his opposite number from the hostage-takers wanted to know whether he represented the Security Council or the Secretary General. It was a sophisticated question, and the wrong answer carried a dire penalty. Picco gave the right one--the Secretary General.

Although flamboyance was alien to his nature, Pérez de Cuéllar had decided to shift from a peacekeeping to a peacemaking role in the first, and all too often forgotten, Gulf War, between Iran and Iraq. Pérez de Cuéllar did eventually help bring it to an end, with little or no assistance. Even in the UN, there was opposition to this mission creep, since, as he says, "bureaucrats who hide behind their desks are often the first to launch missiles against change." Picco was an active supporter of and participant in the process and soon began to lead a life more like that of an escaped John le Carré character than a red-tape weaver.

Unabashed by morality or factuality, the permanent Security Council members waxed and waned in their support for the Iran-Iraq mediation, along with Iraq's prospects on the battlefield. They passed Resolution 598, calling for an end to the fighting, but left it up to the UN to implement it. Only when it was clear that Iraq was unlikely to topple Teheran and might even lose was there any enthusiasm for the UN's hard work. Crucial to Iranian acceptance was paragraph 6, which promised a report on who caused the war.

Tactfully, Picco does not belabor the point that most of the world was united in support of Iraq, despite its use of chemical weapons and despite the clear evidence of Iraqi aggression starting the conflict.

That report was crucial to the next and more spectacular stage of Picco's career--the hostage crises in Lebanon. The situation made the adjective "Levantine" seem an example of litotes when applied to local politics. Following the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982, various groups took hostages, foreign and local, for reasons political and commercial. The political assumption was that the West bankrolled and supported Israel, and so Western hostages gave leverage to release militants captured by Israel.

Equally simplistically, the West assumed that Hezbollah was a surrogate for Iran. In fact, it had its own interests, clans and politics, and even Iran was far from homogenous in its power structure. Alongside Hezbollah there were the other Palestinian and Lebanese groups, operating with varying degrees of blessing from Syria, and some connections to Libya. Although Iran did not have control over the kidnappers, it certainly had influence, and its leaders' eagerness for an exonerative report gave Picco an ace to play in gaining their cooperation.

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