From the ashes: a multilateral mission?

Johanna Mendelson Forman
21 August 2003

In the rubble and ashes that was once the Canal Hotel, the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, lie the victims of a terrorist attack that has touched 191 nations sharing a common bond: membership in the largest multilateral organisation of our time. The glue that binds all of us, the UN Charter, is a declaration of international principles of self-governance, freedom and respect for individual rights.

Working under dire conditions of extreme heat, lack of water, and unnerving insecurity, the daily mission of the civil servants was clear: to support the Iraqi people in realising their freedom, in spite of the immense problems faced in a post-war situation for which most UN members felt the planning had been inadequate. No 250-kilogram truck bomb can destroy the values and ideals that guided those international civil servants who perished that day.

The meaning of an atrocity

Like other notorious dates, Tuesday 19 August will become a record of the sad reality that even the neutrality of the United Nations may be insufficient to protect its staff and its mission from the anarchy of terrorism. This end of neutrality has been a feature of the post-cold war experience, making vulnerable precisely the institutions that were created to draw a line between innocent civilians in a conflict and the armies that perpetrated the wars. Exploding the UN edifice and killing its international staff reaffirms that civil wars are not about military gain, or territorial expansion, but about victimising innocent people who aspire to a life of security, justice and well-being.

What stands out, however, in this singular event is the context of the UN presence in Iraq. Unlike other post-conflict environments of the last decade, the UN was never permitted full partnership in the reconstruction efforts designed by the United States-led coalition. The Security Council’s post-war resolution assigned broad yet vague tasks to the UN in Iraq. Its most specific pronouncement was the willingness to support a Special Representative of the Secretary General to become part of the UN architecture in Iraq.

It was precisely through this SRSG, Sergio Vieira de Mello, that the world community offered its best hope of having a skilled, talented, and relentless advocate serve as a mediator with the coalition in the difficult efforts of the UN to serve its “vital role” in the post-war period. Through Mr. de Mello’s efforts the UN was able to establish a presence and authority in the process of rebuilding, and most importantly, to serve as a source of legitimacy for the creation of the unelected governing council that was appointed in July.

In spite of the US wish to exclude the UN from the rebuilding of Iraq, it was precisely through the UN that Iraqis demanded legitimacy for their newly-formed council. By immediately seeking a UN Security Council Resolution to recognise the governing council after its creation, and by actively lobbying the UN Security Council toward that end, only days before this devastating bombing, the Security Council acted by passing yet another resolution that provided an incremental approach to placing the UN in Iraq on a par with the Coalition.

On 14 August the UN established a formal mission in Iraq. The formal mission represented the acknowledgement by the Coalition that the US could not remain the sole authority in governing and directing the transition of power to Iraqi control. It was surely the work of Sergio Vieira de Mello and his staff, and the dedication of people like Rick Hooper, of the secretariat, that moved this agenda forward. Hooper, like his colleague de Mello, perished in Tuesday’s bombing.

The lesson of a tragedy

Only a month ago I sat in Mr. de Mello’s offices, and talked with his staff and assistants about the UN role, progress to date, and what the next steps would be. In some ways the lack of security on the outside of the building was matched with a certain fortress mentality on the inside. UN staff recognised the dangers they faced in Iraq. They understood that they were highly vulnerable, but preferred to tough it out in the dangerous back streets of Baghdad.

For them, the mere presence of the UN outpost, far from the jersey barriers of the security zone around the palace of the Coalition was almost an act of defiance. The UN mission in Baghdad was trying to be with the Iraqi people, rather than act in isolation above them. Sometimes, this type of hubris can also be its undoing. At the end of the day, the attack was not against the UN per se, but against all foreign agents. It was an act most likely born out of the thoughts of a tiny minority of Iraqis and other neighbours, who cannot countenance an Iraq that embarks on its future with an embrace of the west.

Where do we go from here? After we say our farewells to such good friends as Sergio Vieira de Mello, Rick Hooper, Arthur Helton, Fiona Watson, Nadia Younis, and others who perished in this cowardly act, we must recognise the lesson we have learned from other post-conflict operations. Rebuilding a broken society cannot be done alone, under-resourced and understaffed. Only the UN can provide a legitimacy that helps prevent the rancour and divisiveness that unilateral occupation represents.

While we cannot afford to fail in bringing to the Iraqi people a future of their own, neither can we fail to recognise that without the support from friends and allies and without the work of multilateral organisations, the security needed to ensure a proper rebuilding effort will be inadequate to fulfil the dreams of the Iraqi people for freedom and justice.

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