Handmaid in Babylon: The UN's Decline and Fall

By Cockburn, Alexander | The Nation, September 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

Handmaid in Babylon: The UN's Decline and Fall


Cockburn, Alexander, The Nation


"One has to be careful," said United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in late August, "not to confuse the UN with the US." If the Secretary General had taken his own advice, maybe his Brazilian subordinate, Sergio Vieira de Mello, might not have been so summarily blown to pieces in Baghdad two days earlier.

Whichever group sent that truck bomb on its way decided that Vieira de Mello and his boss were so brazen in moving the UN to play a fig-leaf role in the US occupation of Iraq that spectacular action was necessary to draw attention to the process. So the UN man handpicked by the White House paid with his life.

To get a sense of how swift has been the conversion of the UN into after-sales service provider for the world's prime power, just go back to 1996, when the United States finally decided that Annan's predecessor as UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had to go.

In a pleasing foreshadowing of Annan's plaintive remark cited above, Boutros-Ghali told Clinton's top foreign policy executives, "Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from US policy." But unlike Annan he did so, harshly contrasting the West's concern for Bosnia, whose conflict he described as "a war of the rich," with its indifference to the genocide in Rwanda and to horrifying conditions throughout the Third World. Then, in May 1996, he went altogether too far, when he published the findings of a UN inquiry into the killing of a hundred refugees the previous month by Israel at a UN camp in south Lebanon.

In a minority of one on the Security Council, the United States insisted on exercising its veto of a second term for Boutros-Ghali. James Rubin, erstwhile State Department spokesman, wrote his epitaph: Boutros-Ghali was "unable to understand the importance of cooperation with the world's first power." It took another foreign policy operative of the Clinton era to identify Annan's appeal to Washington. Richard Holbrooke later recalled that in 1995 there was a "dual key" arrangement, whereby Boutros-Ghali and the NATO commander had to jointly approve bombing. Boutros-Ghali, to avoid the appearance of taking sides, vetoed almost all airstrikes against the Serbs. But when Boutros-Ghali was traveling, the UN key was left with Annan. "When Kofi turned it," Holbrooke told Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker, "he became Secretary-General in waiting." There was also a further, very terrible service rendered by Annan, when, in deference to the American desire to keep Sarajevo in the limelight, he suppressed the warnings of Canadian Lieut. Gen. Romeo Dallaire that appalling massacres were about to start in Rwanda.

Of course, even in the UN's braver days, there were always the realities of power to be acknowledged, but Secretaries General like Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant were men of stature. These days UN functionaries such as Annan and the late Vieira de Mello know full well that their careers depend on American patronage. Vieira de Mello was a bureaucrat, never an elected politician, instrumental in establishing the UN protectorate system in Kosovo. …

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