Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Iraq and the U.N.


Newsweek, April 21, 2003

Keeping luxury hotels occupied is perhaps the main contribution of U.N. officials to the local economies they are unsuccessfully advising

by Mauro Suttora

Unfortunately, I am a lousy tennis player. Otherwise I would have had a great time in Sao Tome, a wonderful equatorial island off the Atlantic coast of Africa. My friend, a United Nations employee, played every day, early in the morning and at twilight, when the temperature was bearable. The tennis courts belonged to the only five-star hotel in the capital. The rest of the hot day, he retreated into the air-conditioned hotel, where he sometimes held meetings. I was the only 'normal' guest. All the others belonged to one U.N. agency or another, and I found this to be true for many of the luxury hotels in Africa. Keeping them occupied is perhaps the main contribution of U.N. officials to the local economies they are unsuccessfully advising.

I am amazed that as Saddam Hussein statues were toppled all over Iraq last week, all my fellow Europeans could talk about was the importance of U.N. rule in the country, and the danger of a long-term American occupation. They've got it backward. Wherever the United Nations goes, it tends to stay forever, and to perpetuate problems. It's been in Bosnia for eight years now, in Kosovo and East Timor for four, in the Palestinian territories since '48. In Gaza the U.N. agency running the refugee camps is the main purveyor of jobs. I am a refugee's son myself: my father fled the territories that Italy lost to Yugoslavia in 1945. After a few months all 350,000 refugees had found jobs, houses, new lives. There was no U.N. presence, which was perhaps their good fortune.

Today there is no sign that the United Nations will leave Bosnia or Kosovo. No solution for Cyprus after almost 30 years. Nevertheless, 'U.N.' has become a magic phrase, the last redoubt for pacifists. Even my paper - the largest Italian weekly, normally quiet and middle-of-the-road - has turned pacifist: for Christmas it published an article by a Catholic bishop against the war, and as counterbalance an article by a former communist against the war.

I was once a pacifist demonstrator myself, fighting the placement of U.S. nuclear cruise missiles in Sicily. But now I don't mind anybody getting rid of Saddam, by any means necessary. We Italians should know: Rome invented the word 'dictator', the first modern dictator was Italian (Adolf Hitler was a pupil of Benito Mussolini) and even Silvio Berlusconi, our current premier, has been called by his adversaries the model of the postmodern media dictator. Nevertheless, Europeans don't care anymore about dictators (or freedom). They rave about peace. They crave the United Nations.

Now, pardon my bluntness, but why should we condemn the poor Iraqis to be governed by lazy and incompetent bureaucrats? It's no secret that the United Nations has more tolerance than most for petty despots: Libya currently holds the presidency of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The U.N. bureaucracy is a Gogolian monster with 65,000 employees and a budget of $2.6 billion a year. For each problem the United Nations has set up a special agency, and this week in Vienna the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime - the longer the name, the more wasteful the body) is discussing how the war on drugs is going. It's a disaster, actually: halfway through a 10-year effort to eradicate drug cultivation, production has soared. Is the agency closing down because of this failure? No, it's asking for new funds.

The system is corrupt. When I give money for the hungry, I send it directly to the missionaries instead of UNICEF or the World Food Program or anyone else whose first-class air-travel budget could feed tens of thousands. UNESCO is a successful Paris job-creation program for sociologists and intellectuals, famous for overhead expenses that eat up as much as 80 percent of some programs. Officials of the Human Rights Commission have been sent home for allegedly trafficking women and young girls for prostitution in Bosnia. At the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (yearly budget: $740 million), four officials have been arrested for smuggling refugees. The U.N. apparatus has grown so much that in 1994 a new Office for Internal Oversight Services was established to keep track of everyone. It promptly hired 180 more people, at an extra cost of $18 million a year.

Has the United Nations really proved its competence in dealing with Iraq? Past experience says no: not only did the Oil-for-Food Program allow Saddam and his cronies to pocket large sums, but an audit found the program had overpaid $1 million for services. U.N. officers are well paid: six-digit tax-free salaries in dollars, plus innumerable allowances. Most of them are decent people, frustrated by their own red tape. But why on earth should they go to Baghdad? Let them play tennis elsewhere.

Suttora is U.S. bureau chief for Oggi (Rizzoli Corriere della Sera) in New York.

© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.


May 26, 2003, Atlantic Edition


Mail Call

Mauro Suttora's April 21 piece on the U.N.'s ineptitude ignited a heated debate among readers. "A great article!" cheered one. "The U.N. has proven weak and useless," chimed another. But the U.N.'s defenders accused us of "tabloid journalism." One reader simply urged that the U.N. be rehabilitated.

The U.N. Under Attack

I was disappointed to see NEWSWEEK descend to tabloid journalism with Mauro Suttora's "The Last Thing Iraqis Need" (April 21)--a farrago of gossip, unsubstantiated assertions and outright falsehoods masquerading as reportage. Allow me to rebut the most egregious of his misstatements. He says, "Today there is no sign that the United Nations will leave Bosnia," but we have already left. The U.N. troops have been gone since 1996, and we closed down our civilian mission last year. The U.N.'s role in East Timor changed with that country's independence in 2002; we are now there only at the government's request, to assist the authorities, not supplant them. The U.N. has 9,600 employees, not 65,000; even counting every international organization in the U.N. system--including the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization--Suttora's calculation is excessive. U.N. staff do not fly first class; only the secretary-general does. Suttora twists facts to substantiate his prejudices: he even criticizes the establishment of a tough audit mechanism, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, whose effectiveness is acknowledged by the U.N.'s major contributors. The U.N. may not be perfect, but its record needs to be examined with more accuracy and integrity than in this article that is unworthy of your magazine.

Shashi Tharoor
Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information
United Nations
New York, N.Y.

It was a pleasure reading Mauro Suttora's article on the United Nations. The fact that the U.N. is inefficient, inadequate and ineffective is, of course, not a closely guarded secret, but it is important for those who fund it, or perceive it to be a sort of savior, to be aware of this and of some of the reasons behind the U.N.'s blatant ineffectiveness.

Morris Kaner
Givatyim, Israel

What a great article! It's time someone spoke out against the United Nations with a few home truths. Anyone who follows international affairs knows that the U.N. has proved weak and useless in most cases. You can't blame America and England for not paying their U.N. dues when they are the ones invariably forced to do the work the U.N. is incapable of completing, thanks to its incompetence. The last vestige of respect was gone when the U.N. backed down, under pressure from Israel, from sending a committee to investigate the atrocities and damage caused by the Israeli invasion of refugee camps in the Palestinian territories. There may be many dedicated, well-meaning workers in the U.N., but the organization has lost its credibility as an effective operation. If Iraq is to get on its feet again, don't let it fall into the hands of the U.N.

Kaye Krieg
Inzlingen, Germany

As a Vietnamese refugee, I personally experienced the incompetence of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Coming to Britain, I've seen the corrupt nepotism and cronyism of charity/voluntary organizations. There are too many bosses, no one can assert authority and there's no competition for them whatsoever. The U.N. needs to be rehabilitated.

Thong V. Lam
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England

As a U.N. official with a 25-year career in many refugee-crisis situations in the world, I'm shocked by Suttora's vicious article. He singles out some shortcomings of the U.N. and blows them out of proportion. This is a body that can be only as good as the individual entities that constitute it. Not only have I never flown first class, but my colleagues and I often work under unbearable conditions--lacking both basic amenities and physical safety. U.N. salaries are comfortable but not competitive with those in the private sector or some foreign services. "Staff assessment," equivalent to our nations' income tax, is deducted from our gross salary. We take pride in our humanitarian work and serve without political bias in accordance with the U.N. Charter. We help innocent civilians who have suffered persecution or violence to rebuild their lives. Those of us who work in the field often have to live without electricity, running water or heating. Many U.N. workers have been taken hostage, sustained injuries, even lost their lives while performing their duty. As for the UNHCR, the yearly budget cited by Suttora would hardly cover the support we offer to 21 million refugees and other similarly displaced people. The UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize; we're proud to have repatriated millions of people, enabling them to live normal lives. Yes, there are shortcomings in the U.N. system. But the last thing the world needs is the denigration of the one international humanitarian body that gives states a forum where differences can be reconciled. What the United Nations needs is for all--individuals, states and the media--to help us best fulfill our humanitarian task. If we fail, there is no substitute.

Marion Hoffmann
Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Albania
Tirana, Albania

The United Nations' presence in Iraq is an issue that cannot be dealt with in an ironic, one-sided op-ed piece like Mauro Suttora's. It is true that the U.N. system is not run efficiently and that its peacekeeping operations have rarely managed to facilitate peace. What Europeans want is not U.N. "rule" in Iraq, as Suttora says, but its "role" in international legality. This opens up important issues that transcend the functioning of the United Nations and go to the very core of the debate on American imperialism. It's reductive to rule them out with the sarcastic comments of an Italian tabloid journalist.

Fabrizio Tassinari
Copenhagen, Denmark

© 2003 Newsweek

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