Behind the Blue Helmets | The Nation


Behind the Blue Helmets

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On the other side were the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and of course the hostages themselves. Playing a slightly separate game was Israel, which actually had more hostages than all the others put together. Of course, Israel and its supporters did not describe them thus, but it did hold about 300 prisoners, incommunicado and without due process, and was prepared to release all of them in return for a missing Israeli airman, Ron Arad.

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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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In a way, one element of balance missing is names and personalities for the 300. In comparison, the Lebanese held so few that they were campaigned for as individuals, like Terry Anderson and Terry Waite. One of the few memorable names was Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, whose kidnapping by Israel was tantamount to Hezbollah taking the Chief Rabbi hostage. Indeed, one of the demands from the Shiite kidnappers was for the "UN to impose upon Israel the humanitarian laws that apply to prisoners of war, and to make clear that at the moment they are not following those laws."

Picco has no difficulty in verifying that this was true. He continually pushed for a visit to the Khiam prison, where they were kept, and asked the Israelis to refrain from following up on agreed releases with kidnapping raids to replenish their "inventory." Unsurprisingly, his respect for the Israeli contact is matched by understanding and respect for the conditions that gave rise to Hezbollah--a force that drove out the Americans, chased the Israelis out of most of Southern Lebanon and is now doing the same in the far south.

To complicate things further, Picco could not even rely on a firm home base in the far-from-homogenous UN. It took the direct patronage of Pérez de Cuéllar to keep the red tape off his airline tickets when he was going on hostage missions. He would make three reservations and change them at the airport. This was not paranoia. There were groups that would have been happy to add him to their inventory, and the UN was notoriously leaky.

Pérez de Cuéllar and Picco were both setting themselves up as scapegoats if anything went wrong with their intermediation, which was not helped by the United States, which persisted in running separate channels without telling them. "American politicians fell into two categories, those with passports and those without," he concludes, adding that President Bush was "a man with a passport." Even then, he recounts the turf wars between National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker that made US policy a continual source of confusion.

Inadvertently, the best thing to happen to the hostages was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Iraqi troops released the seventeen Shiite prisoners there. His sudden fall from Western grace made it, if not exactly respectable, certainly less reprehensible than before to deal with the Iranians, and above all made it possible for the Secretary General to issue the promised report on the origins of the Iran-Iraq war without getting too much flak from Washington and others.

Compiled by three European academics, the report concluded that Iraq's invasion of Iran flouted the "charter of the UN, any recognized rules and principles of international law, or any principles of international morality, and entails the responsibility for the conflict." Even so, the conclusion was almost whispered, lest anyone pick it up. It was, Picco says, also rushed out in fear that the incoming Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, would favor suppressing it.

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