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UN: Even angels need protection
By Sreeram Chaulia

The August 19 terrorist attack against the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad has reopened old wounds and dilemmas in the international humanitarian community. By its sheer scale of devastation and brutality - more than 20 killed, including UN special representative to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello - it was the biggest single atrocity committed against humanitarians and the culmination of a decade-long trend of worsening insecurity for field personnel working in relief and rehabilitation operations.

A universal reaction to the blast that claimed the life of Vieira de Mello, and more than one dozen of his colleagues, has been to ask why it is that good people always suffer? Unfortunately, the situation at the ground level is a lot more muddled. The moot predicament dogging humanitarians today is one of neutrality. Not everyone in Iraq thinks that the UN and its fellow humanitarian non-government organizations are "good people".

Like all complex emergencies that have burgeoned since the end of the Cold War, Iraq is a battleground of perceptions and impressions. Who stands for whom in this quagmire is open to interpretation. The fact that de Mello - he was also UN under secretary general and a UN high commissioner for human rights - was meeting the US civilian administrator, L Paul Bremer, on a regular basis and jointly appearing before the media with occupation authorities could not have gone unnoticed by loyalists of the ancient regime and fundamentalist forces determined to convert Iraq into a second Vietnam. De Mello's high profile and "personal relationship" with the Americans was an invitation to gross misunderstanding in a volatile and highly charged ambience like post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Add to the combustible mix the unforgettable fact that US-instigated UN sanctions have left a bitter legacy of untreated dying children in rundown Iraqi hospitals, and you have a casus belli to convince some Iraqis of impropriety and partiality on the part of the UN.

Former US ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke, has admitted in Newsweek, "Sergio was usually advancing America's long-term interests [in Iraq]. He saw nothing strange or incompatible in this." Holbrooke ventured further and used a very American idiom to describe the August 19 horror - "The UN's own 9/11 [September 11] crisis."

But surely, the UN does not wage war, occupy enemy lands and exploit countries ruthlessly. De Mello's real mission in Iraq and his lifetime passion happened to be nation-building, not subjugation. His tete-a-tetes with Bremer were not to divide victor's spoils, but to ensure that a new Iraq will improve its human rights record and allow political space to isolated and neglected sections of society. He was acting as a bridge between voices in Iraqi civil society and the new administration, trying to ensure that a cross-section of the Iraqi people had a say in the new 25-member Governing Council appointed by the US and in determining their own future.

The plotters of the attack either did not hear or heard cynically what de Mello held close to his heart - that full sovereignty must be restored to the Iraqi people as soon as possible following the US occupation. Pragmatist that he was, he believed in making the best of the available circumstances and utilizing his legendary persuasion skills and quiet diplomacy to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis. He heard and conveyed to US decision-makers the nuts and bolts problems Iraqis were facing - street and residential crime, power outages, water shortages etc. Politicians, religious figures, tribal leaders, lawyers, judges, professionals, women - all found an active listener and a genuine empathizer in de Mello.

The same de Mello adjudged as a lackey of the Americans by terrorists is on record saying that the US occupation of Iraq was "traumatic" and "one of the most humiliating periods in the history of the Iraqi people". The same de Mello who was the intended and main target of the Canal hotel attack had refused beefing up American military protection to his office for fear of being mistaken as partisan. His fierce independence and carefully nurtured nonpartisanship drove the UN to post Iraqi sentinels rather than Americans, in line with a worldwide UN preference to hire local staff unless expatriates are absolutely essential. What an irony then that the same local guards whom de Mello's staff wished to aid with employment in hard times could arrange for the massacre of their own benefactors.

The first lesson from the Iraq tragedy for humanitarians who have been struggling with the neutrality conundrum is simple. It is important to be not just neutral but to appear neutral. De Mello was out-and-out neutral in his policies and tried to appear neutral, but perhaps the public relations side of the coin was poorly minted. It is a valid argument that no amount of good public relations can convince terrorists trained to detonate themselves for jihad.

In several Asian, African and South American conflict theaters, humanitarians negotiate access rights, safe passage of essential supplies and "humanitarian relief corridors" with non-state actors, rebels, guerillas, terrorists et al. In a typical civil war scenario, humanitarians convince warring factions that their concern is for the suffering civilians and that they will aid non-combatants of all ethnic hues and political affiliations. This profession of strict neutrality must be loud, unambiguous and repetitive to be effectively understood. The irrational fanatics might not heed to reason, but humanitarians must not become fatalistic and drop the guard of eternal vigilance.

Maintaining the reality and appearance of neutrality in disaster zones where angels fear to tread is a delicate and hazardous exercise. The implicit consensus on field security between international aid workers and local military authorities is fraught with landmines and liable to sudden inexplicable warps for the worse. Accusations and rumors can fly fast that this NGO representative or that UN official is partial or friendly with one side or the other and kidnappings, detention, extortions, assault and outright assassinations can occur. Before the Baghdad carnage, the UN alone had lost a record 214 civilian staff from malicious acts since 1992. Field-oriented UN agencies like the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Relief and Works Agency in Palestine have borne the greater brunt of these outrageous acts. When this author was at UNHCR headquarters in Geneva, the elevator posters sadly displayed photos and tributes to slain employees from West Timor who were burnt to death by anti-independence militias. This brings me to the second lesson emerging from the wreckage of the Canal hotel in Baghdad. Despite suffering precious human losses for the last 10 years, humanitarians have not given enough thought to the linkage between militarism and their professions. Journalist Michael Maren has demonstrated lucidly the strange irony of UN and major Western NGOs offering jobs to petty criminals and lumpen elements as bodyguards for personal security and protection of aid convoys in Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere.

UN "aid bureaucrats" have often been accused of employing private gangs and mercenaries due to lack of any other effective security force or governmental law upholder. Such practices are mighty contradictions with the fundamental objective of demilitarizing war-torn realms. Yet, in the interests of "staying there", humanitarians unwittingly resort to proliferation of light arms and vigilantes. More often than not, dubious protectors are invitations to serious trouble. The two Iraqi guards hired by de Mello's office had links to Saddam's dreaded Mukhabarat intelligence service. It is a classic moral dilemma that needs to be resolved by humanitarians, not by arguing whether they should withdraw from lawless spots but by creating alternative sources of security.

As blame goes around in Iraq, the UN secretary general claims that the responsibility for humanitarian security lies with the occupying power. The occupying power in turn rebuts that the UN turned down an offer for improved security. This is a lose-lose negative sum game. Humanitarians should give serious thought to a long-proposed but never implemented idea of a standing UN protection force under UN authority and UN pay. Variously floated ideas of a UN "Rapid Reaction Force", a "Rapid Deployment Police" and a "High Readiness Brigade" must be dusted off the shelves and quickly acted on. It may be practical and easier to overcome national sovereignty hurdles if this standing force has the limited mandate of protecting UN and NGO humanitarian staff, premises and provisions rather than the entire civilian population. Peace enforcement by a UN army is a much grander enterprise requiring strong political will from major member states in the Security Council. What is feasible in the short term is a smaller entity that will protect the protectors.

Unless a UN protection force specializing in field personnel security starts running on the ground, resolutions declaring terrorist attacks on humanitarians to be war crimes will carry zero credibility. A toothless Convention on the Safety of UN Personnel has existed since 1994 to no avail. Any number of clauses in international humanitarian law also expressly proscribes deliberate targeting of UN and NGO staff. What the UN needs to do in this hour of mortal danger is to go beyond condemning and prevaricating yet again. Sergio Vieira de Mello's blood should not have been spilled in vain.

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