Blessed are the peacekeepers - but not perfect

Deliver Us From Evil: warlords & peacekeepersin a world of endless conflict by William Shawcross (Bloomsbury, £20)

By Mark Thompson
Friday 16 August 2013 05:44

On the first day of May in 1995, Croatia recaptured a chunk of territory from ethnic Serb rebels. The UN peacekeeping mission in the Balkans reacted by brokering an agreement which, among other things, committed the UN to transporting Serbs across the river to Bosnia. Some of us in the mission were dismayed. No one was in mortal danger, and Croatia promised full respect for human rights. The UN should have held Croatia to its word and helped people to stay in their homes.

Operation Safe Passage (known to cynics as Back Passage) promoted ethnic self-cleansing by several thousand innocent people, and Croatia's next operation killed four unarmed peacekeepers and hundreds of civilians. The UN had shown that it was a patsy. This shameful action was not required by the great powers or the UN secretariat in New York. The Security Council focuses on the big picture, while missions report to the secretariat, which lacks means to micro-manage every operation. Whatever the official mandate or unofficial pressure, UN missions always have a margin of autonomy. Success or failure may hinge on how this is used.

William Shawcross's panoramic account of conflicts and humanitarian interventions has much to recommend it. Yet it is flawed by a refusal to admit this crucial aspect of UN responsibility, endorsing the secretariat's favourite excuse that it is merely the Security Council's instrument.

Last year, secretary-general Kofi Annan issued remarkable reports on the UN record in Bosnia and Rwanda. His conclusions were tougher than Shawcross's. He identified "errors of judgement rooted in a philosophy of... non-violence wholly unsuited to the conflict in Bosnia", and criticised an "institutional ideology of impartiality even when confronted with attempted genocide".

Such admissions hardly smudge Shawcross's account of a secretariat wrestling with great-power selfishness on the one hand and ruthless warlords on the other. His defensive bias leads him into dubious company. On the Balkans, he is subtly anti-Croatian and anti-Muslim, using Serbian sources (unacknowledged) that stress the Bosnian army's liability for provoking atrocities. On Rwanda, he does not seriously fault the secretariat's sluggishness before the genocide.

Despite their wealth of detail, the accounts of the Balkans, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and crucified Sierra Leone, become predictable because the approach is the same: at once shallow and stratospheric. Amusing material about the décor in dictators' planes is not matched by insights into the secretariat or particular missions. Invariably, the Security Council powers are blamed for ignoring conflicts, handing down contradictory mandates and/or withholding resources, and Shawcross's anti-American bias becomes disabling.

The UN secretariat, however, is invariably portrayed as heroic. Whether a panegyric really serves the UN's best interests is another matter. I admire Annan, who may well become what Shawcross claims: the first outstanding secretary-general since Hammarskjold. Yet the UN's disasters in Bosnia and Rwanda occurred during his stint as head of peacekeeping. (He could have forbidden Operation Safe Passage.) Was he a yes-man, avoiding collision with his chief, the irascible Boutros-Ghali? The UN institutional culture is stiflingly cautious. Annan has to change that, or fail.

Refreshingly, Shawcross notes that "We can't impose peace" became "Annan's refrain in almost every one of the apparently... insoluble situations he faced. It was an entirely understandable complaint, but it obviously also raised the question of whether and how political will could be summoned where it was lacking."

This excellent question goes unanswered. Either Annan had nothing to say, or he kept his plans to himself. Let us hope it was the latter.

The reviewer is a writer who spent more than two years working for the UN in the Balkans

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