Profile: Bureaucrat at large in the Balkans: Yasushi Akashi, almost painfully diplomatic UN envoy

Friday 29 April 1994 23:02

IT IS a sad irony for Bosnia that the qualities which bring a man like Yasushi Akashi to the top in the United Nations are the same qualities that, from the war victims' standpoint, crown the UN efforts in Bosnia with failure. The 63-year-old Japanese diplomat, who was appointed head of the UN peace-keeping mission in former Yugoslavia last December, is by nature a cautious man.

Mr Akashi first went to the United Nations in 1974, as part of the Japanese mission. In 1979 he joined the UN staff and spent the next 15 years climbing through the UN bureaucracy. His progress was noted principally for the absence of waves in the surrounding waters as he moved between jobs and departments. He merged well with a bureaucratic culture in which keeping grit out of the turning cog-wheels becomes an objective in itself, more important in the long term than any putative direction that the great machine might be taking. Akashi was a good man with an oilcan.

Take this assessment, by a former colleague, as emblematic of bureaucratic esteem: 'We all have to be very circumspect in what we do and to take advice from our superiors. Mr Akashi has had a long career at the UN and if he hadn't measured up he would have been asked to leave.'

When Akashi was under-secretary general in charge of the information department, he ran it, his colleague said, 'competently' - high praise in the grit-prevention lexicon. 'You have to operate within the system,' his colleague expanded, 'and being daring or not just does not apply. He was also,' he added, warming to his theme, 'extremely knowledgeable on the administration and budgetary committee.'

Not everyone remembers Mr Akashi so fondly. Ask some of his former workmates about him and you hear a sharp intake of breath followed by a decisive, 'I have nothing to say about Mr Akashi.' This is not just bureaucratic caution. This is dislike. But why? There are several possible answers.

One of them is undoubtedly cultural - Western impatience with a man whose culture finds the word 'no' unacceptably abrupt and whose affirmative answers have to be held up to the light like a suspect banknote, to be scrutinised for a genuine thread of acquiescence or exposed as a disguised negative. That is part of the reality of an international bureaucracy. But add to it a deep-dyed aversion to the use of force and what some interpret as a diffidence that covers for indecision, and you get a sense of the emotions that rise in Unprofor's military commanders when they have to talk to Mr Akashi.

He was in charge of the UN's department of disarmament in 1992 when he was suddenly picked to head the high- profile peace-keeping mission in Cambodia. Some who take an unenthusiastic view of Mr Akashi's abilities believe that he was chosen over other able candidates largely because Japan was committing large sums of money to the Cambodian peace settlement.

When he arrived in Phnom Penh in March 1992, other UN staff complained that he was distant and indecisive. He travelled with a Japanese- speaking British assistant, and when faced with a difficult issue, Mr Akashi, who speaks fluent English and good French, would often lapse into Japanese, shutting out those who did not speak the language. His biggest public relations gaffe came when aid workers complained that an enormous brothel district had suddenly sprung up on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It was less the existence of the brothels that caused surprise than the number of UN vehicles seen parked outside them. Mr Akashi dismissed the scandal. 'Boys will be boys,' he said. The UN eventually banned its staff from visiting the red- light area in official vehicles, but the ban was never fully enforced.

The most serious criticism of Mr Akashi's performance in Cambodia, however, has come back to haunt him in Bosnia: his dislike of confrontation. His desire to avoid conflict - a matter for congratulation in New York - was seen as a sign of weakness both by the Khmer Rouge guerrillas and the Phnom Penh government.

Early in his mandate in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge began to back away from the peace agreement, and when he attempted to visit the guerrillas' headquarters, he was turned back by one soldier at a makeshift roadblock. Several UN officials believed that there was no risk of violence, and that Mr Akashi should have walked on and forced a meeting with the Khmer Rouge, who were thought to be testing his resolve.

At the same time the non-communist parties complained that the Vietnamese-installed government of Prime Minister Hun Sen was abusing its power, killing and threatening opposition party campaigners, while enriching itself from the coffers of the UN. But Mr Akashi resisted confronting the guilty parties, several of whom had been identified by name by his own police force, and political violence continued to escalate.

In the end the elections went ahead and a government was formed in Cambodia. If the Khmer Rouge was not exactly marginalised, it was at least kept at a distance that proved sufficient to prevent it destroying the electoral process. The biggest UN operation to that date was judged a triumph. But while the UN team in Cambodia collected much deserved credit, the success of the Cambodian peace plan was greatly aided by the symbolic unifying influence of Prince Sihanouk, who was later crowned king; by the fact that a peace agreement had already been signed before the UN arrived and was reinforced by diplomatic pressure from all the major powers; and by widespread disillusionment among the ordinary people with two decades of war. Last week, the Khmer Rouge was again fighting in western Cambodia.

With the Cambodian success under his belt, Mr Akashi was a prime candidate for the job of bringing peace to ex- Yugoslavia. It is another sign of the peculiarities of the UN culture that his appointment to the job was read variously as a reward for success in Cambodia or a poisoned chalice filled by jealous colleagues in New York. There is a third point of view, held by Bosnian diplomats in the UN: that the appointment of such a cautious man was explicitly designed to be a brake on action by those at the UN who disapprove of the use of force in Bosnia. He himself seems ambivalent about his role. 'Confucius,' he observed, 'said that a mediocre man given too much free time tends to indulge in evil acts, so I see this job as a punishment imposed on me by some wise deity.'

He brought his Cambodia staff with him, displacing many of the established staff in Zagreb, perhaps a measure of his view of the task that faced him. But Zagreb is not Phnom Penh: there is no peace, there is no agreement among the major powers, there is no unifying figurehead. Above all, nobody has yet reconciled the demands of Nato force with UN peace-making. Mr Akashi's finger hovers above the Nato button, to the evident frustration of the Nato force commanders.

Nato's irritation with Mr Akashi reached a public peak over the seige of Gorazde, when the Serbs ignored Nato deadlines and, instead of acceding to Nato demands for an airstrike, Mr Akashi chose to negotiate. His stance has won him high praise both from the Serbs and from the UN Secretary-General, not, in itself much of a recommendation in the wider world.

His position is scarcely enviable: he has more than 30 mandates and insufficient resources to carry them out. Had he agreed to the bombing of Serb positions in Gorazde, many diplomats insist, true catastrophe would have followed. But for the swaggering Bosnian Serb leaders, Mr Akashi's aversion to potentially hostile enounters has opened a rich propaganda vein. When he came in for criticism last week for his reluctance to order airstrikes in Gorazde, they said that he was being punished by Islamic countries for his even-handedness.

Diplomats who deal in realpolitik have what one called 'realistic' expectations of what Mr Akashi can achieve in Zagreb and argue that he is bound to be criticised.

His criticism of the US as being 'somewhat afraid, timid and tentative' after Somalia raised ironic smiles among many observers. Nor has he been better understood in his own country. Shortly after his appointment to head the UN peace mission in former Yugoslavia, Mr Akashi called for Japan to send peace-keepers to the region.

'Japan,' he said on Japanese television, 'having become a globally established country, cannot say it is not concerned with European or African nations just because they are not in Asia.'

Japan declined; fighting might break out in Macedonia, it said, and it was too dangerous to send Japanese personnel. Since then Mr Akashi has not called on his government to contribute to the UN mission.

Mr Akashi cuts an incongruous figure in ex-Yugoslavia: a small, dapper man, he is rarely seen to react, even when confronted with scenes of horror. When he visited the scene of the massacre in a Sarajevo market, one of the most sickening sights of the Balkan war, his diplomatic diffidence appeared unshaken. But a UN official who works closely with Akashi insists that beneath the contained exterior there is a man with a profound faith in working through negotiation. The Akashi this colleague describes was calm but firm in negotiation in Pale 10 days ago with Radovan Karadzic and his men.

'Karadzic said that the Serbs were a proud people and would not stand the humiliation of the air strikes. Akashi said that the Japanese were also a proud people. Then he said that in 1941, the Japanese had been too proud and too stubborn when they allowed themselves to be convinced that the whole world was against them and let their persecution complex lead them to disaster. 'Mr Karadzic,' he said, 'you know all about persecution complex.' In that one exchange,' said the UN official, 'he managed to convey a sense of understanding, a warning and offer a way out. It doesn't necessarily mean that anything comes out of it, but the most you can hope for from a diplomat is that he gets his point across.'

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