Bearing witness to an international community

The author who has been involved in UN electoral missions all over the world, met up with a group of colleagues in New York who worked with him in Central America. He looks back on the work of twenty years, including the ONUVEN and ONUSAL missions.

Nguyen Huu Dong
6 August 2013

Our adventure in the service of peace began a little over twenty years ago in Central America, first in Nicaragua and then in El Salvador. Since then, we have been dispersed throughout the world, pursuing our careers, but bearing with us the knowledge and enthusiasm that came from those days when we discovered together the difficulties and rewards of a vocation that was new to us. 

Individually, many of us were promoted to greater responsibilities, while others continued to dedicate themselves to this truly Sisyphean task of trying to instill a slightly greater degree of harmony in the world, with no other ambition than that of being worthy of the trust vested in us by the institution. These twenty years have helped us to understand, in our hearts and in our minds, what the United Nations means—less an organization than an ideal. And in contrast to the Sisyphus of Camus, we could hardly congratulate ourselves on this work that always had to be restarted over an over again. But never mind the incessant movement of waves across the beach. The flecks of foam they leave are evidence of our having been there.

As for us, what testament can we give? What have we learned in these years of apprenticeship: apprenticeship to a trade, to friendship, solidarity and partnership? In this jungle of feelings and new experiences, each of us has ploughed his own furrow different from any other. But if this text has a meaning, it is to remind us, from a very personal perspective, what was the common crucible in which we were revealed to ourselves, a revelation which allowed us to take on new missions with apprehension, but also in the conviction that we were up to them, and to approach them with humility and simplicity.

Nicaragua was the first adventure. It grouped around two men a team of international civil servants (which we all were) endowed with a mandate that was as simple as it was vague: observe the elections that were intended to end a decade of conflict that had torn that country apart. I asked the personnel officer who had suggested that I join the mission what this mandate meant. “What do I know?” he answered. And on this laconic response I headed for Nicaragua. In a local building that served as a temporary office, we observation coordinators spent the first long week asking ourselves what our work was, and then began attending presentations by the national authorities on how the elections would be organized.

The first thing we learned was to be patient and humble, since many of us had never even voted in an election, let alone observed one. We therefore learned the rudiments of the job of electoral administrator. We also learned, as much from books as from our discussions with our local interlocutors, the possible symbolic (and therefore political) effect of the presence of representatives from an organization like the United Nations in a sovereign and independent country. Few knew what was expected of us, especially those who were in charge of running the country. We were greeted at public meetings with either curiosity or indifference.

To be present was what was important—a visible but discreet presence. Sometimes, the participants at these meetings approached us shyly to entrust us with their fears or their hopes. We became, over the duration of the mission, the confidants of humble people who spoke for the first time in their lives with the strangers that we were. And we were able to make them understand that we were neither enemies nor givers of lessons. We listened to them always with respect and we were transformed by the spontaneous trust which they accorded us. We were not passively neutral because we knew enough to condemn actions that were illegal according to the laws of the country, just as we affirmed and promoted the most fundamental values of the international community.

But we were impartial relative to the local figures and groups, favouring neither one faction or another. We understood the points of view of all sides without taking sides, and without ever forgetting that we were guests, and therefore subject to elementary rules of courtesy. Of course, we were physically and socially different from our local interlocutors. Our cars, our offices, our style of life, as modest as they were, were nonetheless objects of envy for a population that lived at the limits of poverty.

If the operation in Nicaragua is now considered as a success, the credit is not ours. It is above all that of the entire population, the government and its supporters as well as the opposition. They all demonstrated, despite the evident sacrifices required, a remarkable sense of responsibility towards the higher interests of the nation. Our contribution, at least so far as I am concerned, was to have understood how to show by our presence and nothing more than our presence (in a more evangelical language: our witness) that the international community was first a community (cum and munis), and that it shared the burdens and the values that moved the population. As I write these lines, I think that we were perhaps the main beneficiaries of the mission because of what we learned there: humility, humanity, but also firmness in defense of essential values, and a determination to fulfill our mandate whatever it cost.

For those who had the luck to participate in the El Salvador mission, the lessons of Nicaragua were of  incalculable worth. The situation in El Salvador was more complicated. We arrived in the middle of a civil war with a mandate to first observe the implementation of the human rights agreements, and then, once the peace was signed, observe the implementation of those agreements and, finally, to observe the elections.

This sequence had not been pre-determined. It was defined as the successive mandates were achieved. The code of conduct imposed on us by the head of mission, the same who had guided us in Nicaragua, was to respect the same principles: humility, respect, firmness, and impartiality. To describe as “disgust” our reaction to the overt disrespect for human rights committed by certain factions of the army is an understatement. But here as well we were able to understand – while neither accepting nor justifying – such behaviour, which was itself the result of inextricable contradictions. How does one give up power, with all that it represents in terms of interests or even a way of life? How does one submit to the authority of civilians after having been one’s own master? One officer from this faction confided to me, in a moment of great lucidity, that if he could earn a salary equivalent to mine he would also become an advocate for human rights.

Whatever their origin, the discussions and opinions that we heard enriched our own thinking as we debated these themes—a debate that continues to shake up the academic community. Should one try to make the respect for human rights a universal and abstract policy from which every human being is the beneficiary? Or should we recognize the fact that a human is defined in his being by his links with a national community, with a particular culture, tradition and history? I have no pretensions of entering into this discussion and even less to offer an opinion. What I retain are the main factors that explained why various actors trusted us, whatever their partisan position. They were the attitudes of humility that I have mentioned throughout this note, along with the unwavering desire to implement the mandate that we were given, and intellectual honesty, understood as the capacity of seeing the different opinions of others.

In 2011, Iqbal Riza, the head of our missions in Nicaragua and el Salvador, was accorded by the Salvadorian parliament the distinction of, ‘Noble Friend of El Salvador]. Among those who signed the decoration’s decree was the country’s vice president between 1992 and 1994, who had opposed the peace accords. Throughout its long history as a mediator between warring factions, the United Nations and its representatives have received many awards. But that an award was given unanimously by a parliament composed of former adversaries united in honouring the contributions of one man is to the best of my knowledge unique. Beyond other considerations, this man knew, with his simplicity, humanity and intelligence, how to transform a conflict into a game with only winners.

A few anecdotes are worth more than a long dissertation. I want to provide two.

We were often invited to dinner at Mr. Riza’s residence. Among the dishes served there was always  ham. If anyone asked him about his religion, and what it forbade, he would offer a half smile: it is not because I am the host that I should deprive my guests of their favourite meat.

One day we were in his office and I was briefing him on the tense situation in the region that I was responsible for. In the middle of my briefing his international line rang. It was a call from Alvaro de Soto in New York describing the latest difficulties in getting the peace accords signed. In the middle of that briefing, his domestic phone rang. It was the cook who was speaking loud enough for me to hear her. “Mr. Riza, the fish you bought is too big for the oven. The guests are arriving in two hours. Should I cut the head or the tail?” He answered with a composed voice. “Don’t worry, Mr. Dong is coming to help you.” Then he looked at me. “We’ll continue our discussions later. You understand very well that for a cook, her fish is more important than world peace.”

Simplicity, humanity, and an ability to understand the interests of each. These qualities explain a lot and teach even more. For a long time, twenty years actually, I have been guided by this lesson.


Thanks go to Scott Smith, friend of many field missions, for translating this note.

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