15 December 2006

The title of the Yale University Press book by Adam LeBor was inspired by a statement in the executive summary of a U.N. report on Peacekeeping issued in the year 2000. It said: "Impartiality for United Nations operations must therefore mean adherence to the principles of the Charter: where one party clearly and incontrovertibly is violating its terms, continued equal treatment of the parties by the United Nations can in the best case result in ineffectiveness and in the worst may amount to complicity with evil."

While LeBor, an author and experienced field reporter to London Times now based in Budapest, focuses on the shortcomings that led to massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica, he does not simply offer critical historical analysis of the U.N. He instead stresses the need for the Organization's continued relevance, arguing that it must regain credibility, take a moral stand, and return to its founding principles.

By recounting the reasons for the crises in Srebrenica and Rwanda, LeBor aims to provide a detailed template for understanding why, in Darfur, the United Nations has failed yet again to stop genocide. He points to urgent field reports from U.N. officials in the Sudan in 2003 that were tabled and ignored for a year because they were politically inconvenient. He demonstrates a pattern of appeasement, feeble response mechanisms, inertia, bureaucratic infighting within the Secretariat, and lack of political will by the Security Council to stop the killing.

Adam LeBor covered Bosnia first hand. His book reflects a professional blend between facts he saw on the ground and high-level interviews he conducted with key decision-makers at the time, including Madeleine Albright, Richard Holbrooke, Douglas Hurd, and David Owen. He also double-checked his findings with current and former U.N. officials.

On Rwanda, the book recounts in some detail the attempt by UNAMIR force commander General Dallaire to avert mass murder in 1994 after being informed by his source, known as "Jean Pierre." The General asked DPKO, then headed by Kofi Annan to raid the arms caches and offer sanctuary to his source. To make matters easy for headquarters, the French Canadian General did not request permission but subtly indicated a decision to take action unless stopped by those in New York. Action could be taken within the next 36 hours. "Peux ce-que veux. Allons-y," he admonished. However, Mr. Annan's office replied in a now infamous cable by his then deputy and later his long-time Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza with instruction not to take any action. "We must handle this information with caution," Mr. Riza starkly ordered, "no reconnaissance or other action, including response to request for protection should be taken by UNAMIR until clear guidance is received from headquarters." When the General pleaded again with support from the Special Representative on the ground, he was told, again by Riza on behalf of Annan, that he was attempting to proceed beyond his mandate. Riza's verbal gibberish stated that "the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions." According to the author, neither Annan nor Riza bothered to alert other U.N. Departments nor brought Dallaire's warnings in time to the attention of the Security Council. Srebrenica, in 1995, was another massacre examined. Initially, the author indicated, that attack caused "few ripples at DPKO, U.N. headquarters." Annan was away. The Secretary General Boutros-Ghali was traveling. Shashi Tharoor, DPKO team leader on Yugoslavia, was on leave. So was General Sir Rupert Smith. On Saturday, July 8, Boutros-Ghali, Annan, Smith and other senior U.N. officials met in Geneva. Incredibly, they sent Smith back on leave. By the time Tharoor finally returned to his desk, Srebrenica had virtually fallen.

From the killing fields of Rwanda and Srebrenica a decade ago to those of Darfur today, the United Nations machinery has, in LeBor's view, repeatedly failed to stop or prevent genocide. In the book, he details the complicated reason for, and the price of, those failures. His press coverage of conflicts and wars provided him with a detailed knowledge of what was going on.

Many of its pages will make painful, though interesting, reading. But they should be viewed seriously regardless of pointed questioning and harsh criticism. These catastrophic events, which were first denied then admitted as modern age genocide could awaken many internationalists to hard-hitting realities and possibly become part of lessons learned by the U.N., including of course its Peacekeeping Department.