Adam LeBor is an author and journalist based in Budapest, Hungary. He writes for The Times (of London), the Economist, the Jewish Chronicle and the New York Times. He is the author of six non-fiction books, including Milosevic: A Biography, City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa and Complicity with Evil: The United Nations in the Age of Modern Genocide.
In this interview, conducted by phone, we talk about the role the UN played—and oftentimes failed to play—when genocide and crimes against humanity were committed.
Khatchig Mouradian—In Complicity with Evil, you call on the UN to return to its founding principles and set the agenda of the Security Council instead of following the lead of the great powers. Do you think such a drastic shift in the UN’s approach would be possible under current circumstances?
Adam LeBor—It would be difficult, that’s for sure. That’s the ideal that I think should happen. The problem with the UN is that the powers on the Security Council follow their own national interests more than the interests of the UN, but one place where there is room to maneuver is within the Secretariat. And if the Secretary General and other Secretariat officials don’t just follow the whims of the great powers but actually say, “Look, the UN is here to safeguard human rights, prevent genocide, that’s why it was founded, not to be used to pursue your national interests,” if the Secretariat kept making that point, it could, perhaps, have an effect.
This sounds very general, but let’s look at, for example, what happened in Bosnia. Many UN officials focused primarily on preserving the UN’s impartiality and also following the interests of the great powers. Those UN officials did have an effect on the ground, but it wasn’t a good effect.
K.M.—You mentioned the issue of UN impartiality. In the book you highlight the UN’s “reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor” and “continued equal treatment of the parties” as the biggest blows to the credibility of UN peacekeeping. Can you explain?
A.L.—We saw that in Bosnia, we saw it in Rwanda, and we are still seeing it in Darfur. In Bosnia, at the Sarajevo airport, UN soldiers were shining spotlights on people who were trying to run across the airfield to get out of the besieged city, and the Serbs would fire on them. The airport was controlled by the UN, and the UN believed it had to be neutral.
You have this obsession with neutrality. You have the main UN political official, Yakushi Akashi, who refuses to authorize air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs because he believes that it would weaken Slobodan Milosevic—and the latter was needed to make a peace deal.
You see the same thing in Rwanda, where the UN, under pressure by the Clinton Administration—in what was surely one of the Administration’s most shameful moments—actually pulled out 90 percent of the troops that were there.
You see the same situation now in Darfur. Sudan is treated as an honored partner in negotiations. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meets the Sudanese president and talks about how he believes the Sudanese president is committed to ending the carnage in Darfur, and then, a few weeks later, another 12,000 people are displaced and hundreds of more people are killed. All this is because no one seems to be willing to say that the UN is not founded to give a platform of membership to regimes carrying out genocide.
There’s a mentality that we can’t get involved in what’s going on. We just have to always be these impartial arbiters. But there comes a point when impartiality means siding with the aggressor.
K.M.—How do you think this false notion of impartiality can be changed? After all, some would argue that the UN is the organization that brings all countries together and once the concept of impartiality is left open to different interpretations, member states could raise the argument that the UN is, in fact, taking sides.
A.L.—This is the great question: How can the organization protect human rights when the people carrying out the human rights abuses are members of the UN? I would argue there are means and methods by which UN member states that carry out egregious violations can be suspended or expelled—there’s a provision for that in the UN Charter. Also, the agenda can be set. Look at what’s happening now on the new Human Rights Council. We have a spectacle of countries refusing to take any action against Sudan and Zimbabwe, obsessing about what Israel is doing. Now, to be sure, there are human rights issues in Israel and Palestine, but there are also many other human rights issues going on in the world. But you have member states of these organizations focusing only on their own interests, rather than having any actual interests in human rights violations. That’s one area that needs a lot of attention.
K.M.—This is also a problem in the media. How do you feel about bringing up human rights violations elsewhere to “justify” or divert attention from other human rights abuses? Wouldn’t a universal approach to human rights help all sides?
A.L.—The media in countries often reflects their country’s interests, especially in non-democratic regimes. For example, most Arab regimes and much of the Arab media hasn’t engaged over Darfur. Some of them don’t believe it’s happening, some of them say it’s another Western plot to dismember another Arab country, same as in Iraq. You see a kind of selective judgment. But until there are absolute standards applied, it weakens the whole cause of human rights. If, for example, the Arab media is always talking about Gaza and the West Bank—and of course, I say again, there are human rights violations that need to be addressed there—but the same media never says anything about what’s happening in Darfur or refugees in the Western Sahara or the lack of human rights in most Arab countries or the fact that there’s no free press and bloggers are arrested, then it becomes very difficult to share outrage over other issues. We need less selective judgment, and clearer, absolute judgments over what’s wrong, whether or not it is convenient to look at a certain issue.
K.M.—I want to return to the issue of the Secretariat. Wouldn’t you agree that the hands of the Secretariat are tied when it comes to setting the agenda as long as members of the Security Council are not willing to make concessions?
A.L.—I think it would demand a concession by the countries on the Security Council, especially the five permanent members, to accept that Secretariat officials should have more power and should be able to set the agenda of the UN. But at the moment, it just doesn’t seem to be happening. Look at how the political establishment in the U.S., for example, views the UN. They see it as an anti-Western organization, and so why would we hand over any diplomatic power to an organization like this? We go back to the problem of selective judgment here. The General Assembly and the new Human Rights Council are refusing to engage on Zimbabwe or on Sudan but only engages on things that interest it. This actually helps the people who want to keep the UN weak. The Republicans can say, look at these people, they are not concerned about human rights, they are concerned about their own short-term politically expedient interests. So, that selective judgment does a lot of damage.
K.M.—Talk about why the UN is, as you say, “passively complicit with evil.”
A.L.—The reason I called my book “Complicity with Evil” is because it’s actually the UN’s own words. In 2000, the UN released its report on peacekeeping failures in Bosnia, Rwanda and some other places. The UN’s own words were that its continued obsession with impartiality, with not engaging while human rights abuses were going on in front of UN peacekeepers, has arguably made the organization guilty of being “complicit with evil.” And it has been. There are people in the organization that realize this and want to change it.
A.L.—When people talk about Darfur, especially the U.S and Britain, they say that we can’t do anything in Darfur because of Iraq. But there are many things that can be done without sending the 101st Airborne Division in. You can have serious, meaningful sanctions on the Sudanese government, on the president and the people organizing the genocide and the human rights abuses. You can have sanctions on the oil industry. You can have a more active International Criminal Court (ICC). You can see the contempt Sudan holds the UN in when one of the four people indicted by the ICC is actually promoted after the indictment and made the minister in charge of refugee affairs. You can see that a country like Sudan has no fear of the UN whatsoever, couldn’t care less what it does. The way to address that is also to start focusing on the individuals that are actually running these regimes and to seriously target them in terms of sanctions, travel bans and freezing their assets. This had quite strong effects during the Milosevic regime, when the genocide was going on in Bosnia, because people started to get nervous that they’d never get their money or be able to leave the country. They started to turn on each other and started to reach out to the ICC saying that they had information and were ready to make a deal. All this makes the regime crack.
K.M.—Do you think the U.S.’s use of the term “genocide” to describe the killings in Darfur has helped in any way?
A.L.—I thought the whole U.S. position on the use of the term “genocide” in Darfur was completely bizarre. Clearly, it is genocide. Genocide does not necessarily mean mass extermination, as it happened in the Holocaust or Rwanda. It means the intention to destroy a group. And that is exactly what is happening in Darfur in terms of the communities that are being targeted and destroyed as a group. There’s a lot of furor over the use of the word and this furor distracts from what’s going on. America says it is genocide, but then refuses to take any action to stop this genocide. The UN says it’s not a genocide, although some acts have been committed that resemble genocide. You have this, in some way, irrelevant debate over the word, while the slaughter continues.
A.L.—I think a lot of lessons have been learned from Rwanda, where UN troops evacuated places and left the Tutsis there to be slaughtered by the Hutus who were waiting outside the front door. And from what happened in Srebrenica, where Dutch peacekeepers literally forced Muslim men and boys into the arms of the Bosnian Serbs who then took them away and slaughtered them. I think important lessons have been learned, unfortunately at the cost of a lot of human lives and suffering.
Now, where there is a meaningful peacekeeping force, like in Congo and Liberia, it is more robust and muscular. The department of peacekeeping operations has a sub-department called Best Practices, which looks at each mission and works out how to make it work better.
But the problem is when the troops aren’t there. If you look in Darfur, there’s supposed to be 26,000 troops, but there’s only a fraction of them there. Sudan is insisting that only peacekeepers from African countries be deployed. It is doing that because African countries don’t have the experience and the logistics to mount effective peacekeeping operations. They simply don’t have the capability that Western countries have. So it’s all very clever, very convenient.
I would say that where peacekeepers are properly deployed, they are making a difference. But they need to get there.
Khatchig Mouradian is a journalist, writer and translator, based in Boston. He is the editor of the Armenian Weekly. He can be contacted at: [email protected]