The sixth anniversary since a bomb of August silenced the United Nations voice in Baghdad is a moment for commemoration of and tribute to the twenty-two people who lost their lives, and the approximately 150 who were wounded. It is also more: for the horrific truck-bomb attack of 19 August 2003 on the Canal Hotel which served as the UN headquarters in Iraq is now a key moment in history.
Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC, in both the Americas Program and the William E Simon Chair of Political Economy. Among her publications is Investing in a New Unilateralism: A Smart Power Approach to the United Nations (CSIS, January 2009)
Also by Johanna Mendelson Forman in openDemocracy:
"Things Kofi Annan can do now" (17 April 2003)
"We cannot afford to fail" (23 July 2003) - with colleagues from the Iraq Reconstruction Assessment Mission
"From the ashes: a multilateral mission?" (22 August 2003)
"The UN in 2003: a year of living dangerously" (18 December 2003)
"The nation-building trap: Haiti after Aristide" (11 March 2004)
"A 21st century mission? The UN high-level panel report" (25 November 2004) - with D Austin Hare
"In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan's challenge" (23 March 2005)
"President Bush discovers the world is flat" (19 September 2005)
"Open veins, closed minds " (7 May 2009) - with Peter DeShazo Inside the United Nations headquarters, the event is considered the organisation's equivalent of 11 September 2001. For the UN, the terrorist bombing - four months after the United States-led military coalition had after a three-week campaign toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein - marked a turning-point in its ability to work as an agent of collective security in a changing world. It led to a re-examination of the UN's role, embodied in the then secretary-general Kofi Annan's document In Larger Freedom; this ultimately resulted in a new manifesto for the institution, presented in the general assembly's sixtieth-anniversary summit on 14-16 September 2005. It also contributed to a new awareness of the vulnerability of humanitarian workers in conflict-zones, symbolised by the inauguration on 19 August 2009 of a World Humanitarian Day.
The Iraqi vortex
The Baghdad attack robbed the United Nations of fifteen fine and potential-rich servants, as well as taking the lives of others tragically caught by it; they include two NGO representatives, a diplomat, a translator, a contract worker, and the human-rights lawyer Arthur C Helton (also a co-writer of an openDemocracy column into refugee and displacement issues with his close colleague Gil Loescher, who was badly wounded in the blast).
Also among those who died was one of the greatest humanitarian civil servants, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was courageously leading the UN effort in Iraq. His death represented the loss of a vital interlocutor between the US-led coalition and the international community at a critical moment in relationships between the US, the UN, and the rest of the world. Indeed, his very international stature - including his role in helping to oversee the independence of East Timor from Indonesian rule, explicitly cited by al-Qaida as part of the twisted logic that justified his murder - had arguably made the UN in Iraq an even more visible and vulnerable target for terrorists.
In his brief period in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello had pleaded for greater understanding of the Iraqi street and its voices amid the chaos of post-war administration. These were ignored, and the silencing of this voice of reason marked the beginning of a bitter insurgency and civil war that raged in Iraq until 2005-06. It took a long time before much-needed shifts in Washington's military policy and thinking filtered through to better policy on the ground; even after six years, the security situation remains unsettled and the establishment of working relationships with Iraqi leaders have proved tough. How much of a difference Sergio Vieira de Mello would have made here is one of the many unanswered questions of this violent period (see Samantha Powell, Chasing the Flame: One Man's Fight to Save the World [Penguin, 2008]).
The destruction of the Canal Hotel also marked the nadir of multilateralism, and an awful symbol of how the George W Bush administration's foreign-policy "exceptionalism" had destroyed the promise of international cooperation. The leading officials of the administration in effect relegated the UN to the trash-heap of global institutions, opting instead for an approach to international relations that in the end served no interest but to wreak more death and destruction on the "liberated" citizens of Iraq. This posture had started to shift by the time the Bush administration neared its end in 2008-09, but the damage wrought by the events in Iraq was enduring.
The American military forces in Iraq - amounting to 130,000 troops - have as of 30 June 2009 officially withdrawn from major urban centres, as part of the process scheduled to lead to a final exit of troops by December 2011. The situation on the ground is now the responsibility of the Iraqi government's security forces, which have assumed the role of a state-security sector. There are signs of progress, including the existence of an elected government (and the prospect of another round of parliamentary elections in January 2010); progress in advancing the sovereignty of the Iraqi state, and in judicial and other institutions; the development of the Iraqi economy; and greater participation of its citizens in governance.
But violent attacks continue, as in Baghdad itself on the 19 August anniversary; the potential for further outbreaks persists (in contested cities such as Kirkuk, and elsewhere); and many Iraqis who fled abroad during the nightmare years are reluctant to return. It has been a longer and much more painful road than might have been travelled if wiser policies had been followed.
Out of the rubble
The perspective of six years also highlights the importance of the improved relationship between the United States and the United Nations that are the result of the election of Barack Obama in November 2008. The new US president has outlined "a new era of engagement" in US foreign policy of which multilateralism is a cornerstone. It is a change that has profound implications for the UN, and is worth considering on this anniversary.
"When the United States joins others to confront these challenges, it's not charity. It's not even barter. In today's world, more than ever, America's interests and our values converge. What is good for others is often good for us. When we manifest our commitment to tackling the threats that menace so many other nations; when we invest in protecting the lives of others; and when we recognise that national security is no longer a zero-sum game, then we increase other countries' will to cooperate on the issues most vital to us...We build will by pursuing pragmatic, principled policies and explain them with intelligence and candour. And in the broadest sense, we build will when others can see their future as aligned with ours...All of this helps explain why so many of America's security interests come together today at the United Nations."
The UN general assembly will convene for its sixty-fourth session on 15 September 2009. President Obama's address will be an opportunity to reaffirm both the US's renewed support for multilateralism and the continued vitality of the ideals of 1945: commitment to a strong international legal order, and to the universality of UN membership as the key source of legitimacy of the whole organisation's decision-making power. These commitments are both right in themselves and in America's own best interests, a combination that reflects secretary of state Hillary Clinton's emphasis on the need for the US to pursue a "smart power" approach.
Indeed, US and UN interests are set to align in the 2009-12 period on a host of issues: among them threats to peace and security, climate change, global health concerns and managing humanitarian operations. That alignment will be reinforced if the US takes a leadership role in promoting reform of the UN where it is most needed, including in improving the secretariat and its agencies.
A principled and effective multilateral policy by the Barack Obama administration is crucial to United States's rebuilding of its reputation in the community of nations, at a time of great fluidity and complexity in international relations. A strong US-UN relationship will be a vital part of this effort. As both institutions seek to match the needs of this challenging new era, the best of the tragically brief first UN mission in Iraq - the willingness to listen and as well as the need to be heard, the emphasis on cooperation, the instinct to engage - can be an inspiration.
Also in openDemocracy on the Baghdad bomb of 19 August 2003 and its aftermath:
Caspar Henderson & David Hayes, "Arthur Helton: a tribute" (21 August 2003)
Guy S Goodwin-Gill, "Arthur Helton: agent for the dispossessed" (22 August 2003)
Sergio Vieira de Mello, "A world of dignity" (24 August 2003)
Anita Sharma, "The UN Baghdad bombing: one month on" (17 September 2003)
Gil Loescher, '"I was not going to die in the rubble'" (4 December 2003)
Gil Loescher, "Living after tragedy: the UN Baghdad bomb, one year on" (19 August 2004)
Arthur C Helton & Gil Loescher's fourteen openDemocracy columns can be found here
One year ago, on 19 August 2003, a suicide bomber attacked the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. The results were devastating. Twenty-two people were killed: fifteen United Nations officials – among them the UN special envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello – two NGO representatives, a diplomat, a translator, a contract worker, an unknown person, and my friend and colleague, the human rights lawyer Arthur Helton. About 150 other people, including myself, were injured.
|Gil Loescher’s media appearances on and around the anniversary of the Baghdad bombing on 19 August include the ABC Nightline programme in the United States; an interview with Tim Sebastian on BBC World and BBC News 24’s Hardtalk; and (on 21,22 and 23 August) an interview on the CNN International programme Diplomatic License.|
Today, exactly one year later, simple ceremonies of commemoration mark the first anniversary of the event in three places: at United Nations headquarters in New York, at its regional office in Amman, and at its offices in Geneva – where the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, gives an address and unveils a commemorative plaque.
In January 2004, I attended a special session of the European parliament in Brussels where the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded in memory of those who died. Kofi Annan received it on behalf of all the staff of the United Nations. The Sakharov Prize is one of the most prestigious human rights awards; it honours people who show remarkable tenacity and dedication to their principles in the face of great odds.
Outside the European parliament’s assembly hall there was a special display of photographs of all those who died that late afternoon in Baghdad. For the first time since the blast, I was able to see the faces of those who had been with me in the office of Sergio Vieira de Mello. The pictures showed smiling, energetic faces reflecting hope and optimism. Some had feared the call to live and work in Baghdad. But they did not let that affect the way they took the principles of the United Nations to the Iraqi people. They worked at the coalface of peacemaking. Each individual in that display represented a life tragically cut short by the forces of hatred and intolerance (click here for the full list of all those who died).
Sergio Vieira de Mello was widely admired for his work. He perceived himself as a civil servant of the UN trying to find common ground between states, trying to represent what the UN stood for in terms of its charter and the principles it advocated. He developed himself as a consummate diplomat, seeking to persuade governments – including the United States – to recognise their interests in a broader sense than they might otherwise have done.
I want to dedicate a few words to Arthur Helton. I first met him in the early 1980s when he worked for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now called Human Rights First) in New York. He was assisting Haitian asylum-seekers by going down to the Brooklyn dockyards to advocate on their behalf. Arthur was among the first Americans to put into practise the application of human rights principles in this way.
I kept in touch with Arthur over the years because he was someone who worked on issues that were important to me. And I know how influential he was similarly for others. The first time I wrote regularly with him was for openDemocracy when he encouraged me to map, monitor and assess with him the humanitarian consequences of the Iraq war we both knew were coming.
I think a lot about Arthur. Over the last twelve months he has been a model to me in a personal way that also makes him part of my own recovery. A few years ago, his doctor sternly told him that he had to lose weight and go on a physical regime. He became very determined. He trained, became strong and fit and then ran in the New York marathon. As I have run my own personal marathon over this past year, his determination has inspired me to carry on our work.
|Only fifteen weeks after the Baghdad atrocity, openDemocracy published Gil Loescher’s vivid account of the experience and its implications for the UN’s future: “‘I was not going to die in the rubble’” (December 2003)|
I believe that those of us who have survived the Baghdad attack have a personal incentive to continue to try to uphold the principles of dedicated UN staff members all over the world, especially of those who perished in Baghdad. We must take from this tragic event a renewed sense of commitment to doing whatever small things we can to try to repair our damaged world. For my part, I will continue to study and report (including restarting our regular column for openDemocracy) on issues that mattered so much to my friends and colleagues, and to all those others who died that day while working to ensure the growth of humanitarian ideals.
This is also an occasion to think about how the United Nations can work in the new global environment. This was not the first time that the organisation has lost its staff in an outburst of violence. But the UN in Iraq learned to its dismay and horror that its humanitarian flags and symbols were no longer enough to protect its staff members; they could be seen as a provocation.
In the summer and autumn of 2003, the UN was extremely vulnerable to the kind of outrages that occurred on 19 August and 22 September (when a further bomb blast killed a UN security guard and two local police officers). In the diplomatic discussions that had accompanied the build-up to war in March 2003, the UN Security Council had refused to endorse the planned intervention by the United States-United Kingdom; yet at no time did either the Security Council or the General Assembly formally question the invasion’s legality.
Moreover, in the aftermath of the invasion the Security Council passed resolutions that not only recognised the occupation authority but also the Iraqi regime it had installed. Such actions made the UN vulnerable to charges that it was an integral part of the occupation authority and to hostile attacks from those who violently opposed the occupation.
For many months now, the US and the UK have encouraged the UN to return to Iraq and to play a more active role in the post-war administration there, and it has indeed just returned with a small team. However, because the UN is still perceived as supporting the interim Iraqi authority and the occupation forces, it remains just as exposed to criticisms about its lack of independence and impartiality. Thus, despite the devastating and cathartic nature of the attack, the UN is not in any safer position in Iraq today than it was a year ago. The UN in Iraq remains a prime target for the suicide bombers.
This is very regrettable because it is in the realms of humanitarian action and post-conflict reconstruction that the UN can make a vital contribution to future international order. Its specialised agencies have considerable experience in a wide range of governance functions and have been deeply involved in the temporary administration of war-torn countries. The UN, if it were given sufficient political support and financial resources, could potentially make a real difference in these roles.
Even now I find it difficult to express my feelings about those who died so tragically and those who were so badly injured on 19 August 2003. Several months ago I received a card from a retired postman neighbour of mine. On it he had written a quotation from EM Forster that – even as a democrat – I believe appropriately describes many of the people I knew who died or were injured at the UN headquarters in Baghdad:
“I believe in…an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. Its members are to be found in all nations and classes…They represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory…over cruelty and chaos”.
Arthur C. Helton, 1949-2003
Among his many professional projects and associations, Arthur Helton had led the refugee project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (1982-94); founded and directed the forced migration projects at the Open Society Institute (1994-99); worked at the Council on Foreign Relations as director of peace and conflict studies and senior fellow for refugee studies and preventive action (from 1999); and become president of Strategic Humanitarian Action and Research (Share) in 2003.
He was the author of around 100 scholarly articles, and two books: The Price of Indifference: refugees and humanitarian action in the new century (Oxford University Press, 2002) and (with Natalia Voronina) Forced Displacement and Human Security in the Former Soviet Union (Transnational, 2000)
A series of tributes to Arthur Helton, along with more extensive biographical information, is published here
The bomb attack on the headquarters of the United Nations operation in Baghdad on 19 August 2003 which killed the UN special representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, injured more than 100 and killed at least eighteen other people. Among the dead was Arthur Helton, the co-columnist of openDemocracy’s humanitarian monitor.
The other half of this openDemocracy partnership, Gil Loescher, was critically injured in the blast, and has been transferred to hospital in Germany; at the time of writing he is in a critical condition.
Arthur’s death is a dreadful loss to his family, friends and colleagues. Our thoughts and condolences are with them. We are with Gil and his family in spirit too.
This tragedy impacts heavily on openDemocracy. Arthur was a good friend of this enterprise and one of the people who made it what it is. He and Gil first approached us with a project and a vision that chimed with what we wanted to do: to facilitate serious, constructive global conversation on key issues of our time. We built up a strong working relationship from which we never ceased to learn new things.
Arthur was a serious, indefatigable scholar with extraordinary range. He was warm and humorous too. I (Caspar Henderson) will not forget his kindness when I visited him in the grand premises of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York earlier this year, and the touch of irony with which he showed me a photographic tribute to his work in the hallway of the Pratt house. In contrast to the pictures associated with many of his colleagues, which mainly showed important guys in suits and ties shaking hands or dramatic shots of military situations, Arthur’s picture showed a refugee mother and child. “The token soft-power guy around here”, he joked.
Arthur and Gil’s humanitarian monitor combined expert understanding of the many dimensions of humanitarian crises – legal, political, logistical, military, historical – with a willingness to think beyond current models. This search for complex and changing truths led them to interview many of the key figures in the field – from government ministers and UN administrators to refugees and asylum-seekers at the sharpest end of policy.
Because of their true seriousness and refusal to posture, their column reached out to and was read by influential actors and thinkers across a range of bodies and ways of looking at the world, including the military and academic communities, international institutions and activists. Sergio Vieira de Mello was an enthusiastic reader of their work on openDemocracy, recommending it warmly to others (according to reports, Sergio and Arthur were meeting together when the bomb went off).
Arthur and Gil’s columns for openDemocracy on Iraq were only part of their concern with crises of human displacement, food insecurity, health and shelter deprivation – and how these problems are dealt with (usually inadequately, and often without taking to heart the lessons of the past) by state, humanitarian and other organisations. There was huge and important work to be done here, and for openDemocracy’s global membership to engage with. We had hardly begun.
We salute Arthur Helton. We will miss him very much. We commit ourselves to building on his work and helping to make real the better world to which he dedicated his life. There is much to do.
A detailed recording of the precise details of the casualties inflicted by modern wars is becoming an important part of the work of humanitarian groups across the world.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of horrifying events that are known to few, denied by some, and exploited for political gain by others. Twenty years ago, on 16 March 1988, Iraqi bombers dropped chemical agents on the town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan, killing several thousand civilians. The attack laid the precedent for the tactical use of poison-gas against the Kurdish countryside on the first day of every stage of a five-month counter-insurgency campaign that followed shortly afterwards (this was codenamed Anfal, an Arabic word meaning "spoils of war"). These chemicals killed a few hundred and achieved the intended effect of flushing terrified villagers into the arms of Iraqi armed forces, who transported them to transit centres, sorted them by age and sex, and carted off tens of thousands to execution sites in the country's western deserts, far from Kurdistan, where they have laid buried underneath a thin layer of sand until this day.