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The Intervention Blues | The Nation

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The Intervention Blues

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We can argue about the appropriate responses of individuals trapped in a system that demands the type of doublethink necessary to convince oneself that the victims are the problem. One of the reasons for this doublethink is that they had to spend so much time with such charming types as Milosevic and Bosnian Serb army commander Gen. Ratko Mladic. Similarly, one cannot help thinking that Shawcross has spent so much time with senior UN officials that he cuts them far too much slack. That's not entirely surprising: They are often erudite, charming and humane people. But rocking the boat is not part of their job description.

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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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One particular trope that such officials often invoked was the Mogadishu Line. On one level this refers to the US unwillingness to get involved in UN operations involving possible casualties. In fact, the US conducted a freelance operation in Somalia, without telling the UN commanders, and then blamed the UN for the disaster. As if they were grabbing at a headline-writers' tag to disguise the absence of any actual principle, UN officials cited "the Mogadishu Line" as an excuse not to take sides, no matter what barbarities were being committed.

Yet the real line is not the Mogadishu Line but the thugs' line, checkpoints thrown up by local bullies which the UN would refuse to cross. For example, in Cambodia the UN proclivity to kowtowing allowed the Khmer Rouge to chase the UN out of large tracts of the country and Hun Sen to conduct a low-level reign of terror in the rest, setting the conditions for the debacle of an election in 1998.

Indeed, Kofi Annan is a harsher critic of himself and of the UN than Shawcross is. At least Annan learned his lessons from his experiences when he referred to "an institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide," in his 1999 Report on Srebrenica--a lesson he repeated after the report on the UN's role in Rwanda. For many UN watchers, those reports were not much of a revelation in themselves factually, but they were remarkable for their unprecedented candor. It is worth remembering that these inquiries were not instigated by a UN desire to learn from its mistakes. One was the product of a General Assembly resolution moved by Bosnia, and the other was the result of an international uproar.

The only prominent UN staff member to resign on principle during this post-cold war period was Denis Halliday, who left in protest over the effects of sanctions on Iraqi civilians. Shawcross does not mention Halliday's resignation, a striking omission if he really wanted to explore the moral quandaries of working for the UN in ethically and politically dubious circumstances.

The UN Charter is based on a combination of liberal sentiments and stark realpolitik. It says that the rest of the world will use overwhelming military force to stop any country that threatens the peace. Strangely, while many people think bombing is the antithesis of everything the UN stands for, Article 45 in fact envisages that in order to "take urgent military measures," members should hold ready "national air force contingents for combined international enforcement action." The context does not imply that they would be used for leafleting.

In the absence of any such intention by the military powers for the past fifty years, the UN Secretariat developed its own particular metaphysical belief in negotiations, even though, over and over again, against Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Milosevic in Serbia and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the same painful lesson was hammered home. These were not gentlemen whose word was their bond; speaking quietly was useless without a big stick.

In the end, Shawcross considers but admits he has no definitive answers to the questions posed by Annan's new doctrine of humanitarian intervention. "Not everything can be achieved, not every wrong can be righted simply because the international community desires it. We cannot suddenly rebuild failed states or failing territories in our own image." He also correctly points out that such actions may not have popular support in the countries that are carrying out the interventions--and may do more harm than good if carried out in a halfhearted way.

However, as the historian of the effects of the original US intervention in Cambodia, Shawcross could perhaps have made more of how many of these conflicts are the direct result of previous (often inhumane) interventions. The UN's failures in Somalia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Haiti, even Ethiopia and Eritrea, are all the products of cold war successes and excesses, in which "our sons of bitches" were armed and financed against the others'. Even Saddam Hussein is partly the product of a decade of Western support for a megalomaniac--particularly in his bloody war against Iran, which suited US strategy. In most of these conflicts, it is more than a little hypocritical to start pointing the finger at morally feckless natives, so late in the development of tragedies where outsiders have been the directors and producers from the beginning.

It is odd that the UN should have come closest to this realization under the gentle Kofi Annan, who, Shawcross tells us, concludes belatedly that "there are times when the use of force may be legitimate in the pursuit of peace." Somehow, Shawcross finds that "overall, this is a hopeful story." Not if you are a woman in Kabul, a Chechen in Grozny, a multiple amputee in Freetown or a Congolese with half a dozen lawless and armed factions milling about, it isn't.

Taking up Annan's provocative call for humanitarian intervention, Shawcross claims that "a new global architecture is being built upon the international system that was constructed after the Second World War." However, some of that architecture is gingerbread designed to cover the original structure. Yes, the international criminal tribunals established to deal with war crimes are a welcome innovation. But if the original UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been taken seriously, then the crimes they are seeking to try might not have been committed with such seeming impunity.

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