Alain Le Roy, the UN's under-secretary general of peacekeeping operations, was quoted in The New York Times last Thursday saying, "[This] is clearly one of the most tragic days for United Nations peacekeeping."
"Oh yes," he added, as if an afterthought, "Also 'one of the most tragic days' for Haiti..." Taken out of context, Mr Le Roy's remark sounds absurdly self-obsessed. In quantitative terms, the damage done to Haiti and its people by last week's earthquake is far worse than anything that happened to the UN.
But in Haiti the UN has long been in charge, because no one else wanted to be. "Not again!" was our instinctive reaction in early 2004, when it became clear that the poorest country in the western hemisphere was again sinking rapidly into chaos, and the idea of a new international intervention began to be discussed. We had been there, and done that, 10 years before. In 1994, a multinational force entered Haiti, with the blessing of the UN Security Council, and restored the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power.
Six months later, the UN itself assumed responsibility for the mission. A real – but, as it turned out, too brief – effort was made to put the country back on its feet, notably by forming, equipping and training a professional police force. Yet there we were again. By 28 February 2004, when President Aristide left, the police force had disintegrated and the country was in the hands of armed thugs. The following day the Security Council again authorised intervention by UN member states, this time giving the UN secretariat only three months before it had take on the security burden itself.
Should we not have learnt by then that outsiders cannot solve Haiti's problems? This, after all, was a country that had just celebrated the bicentenary of its self-emancipation from slavery and colonialism. Should it not be left alone to sort itself out? UN member states quickly concluded that that proposition was attractive only in the abstract. Haiti was clearly unable to sort itself out, and the effect of leaving it alone would have been continued or worsening chaos. So a new "UN Stabilisation Mission" went in – and there it still is. Has it solved all Haiti's problems? Certainly not. Have all its members behaved like angels? Most unlikely. But would Haiti have been better off without it? Equally unlikely. Running such missions is a largely thankless task which someone has to do. Since 2007 that someone has been Hédi Annabi of Tunisia, who for 10 years before that had been No 2 in the peacekeeping department in New York.
As James Traub of The New York Times has written, he was "no more known to the public than any other UN lifer." There was nothing flamboyant about him. He shunned the limelight and got on with his job, which consisted mainly of cajoling UN member states into supplying troops for dangerous but unglamorous missions, most often in little-known African countries. He worked late almost every evening. Once you knew the time of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince (4.53pm) you knew for sure where Hédi would be – in his office. And there he was, receiving a high-ranking delegation from China, which had contributed a police contingent to the mission. And it was Chinese rescuers who found his body there on Saturday.
Edward Mortimer was chief speechwriter to UN secretary general Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2006. He is now senior vice-president of the Salzburg Global Seminar