UN dilemma: safety vs. mission

A report on Wednesday said the UN failed to heed security warnings in Iraq. Staff insists on safety first.

The Aug. 19 truck bomb in Baghdad that killed 18 United Nations staff was more than the most lethal attack ever on the world body. It was "our own Sept. 11," say UN officials - an unprecedented terrorist targeting of the UN that shattered any notion that its blue flag of neutrality granted some kind of immunity.

While the United States responded to Sept. 11 with beefed up domestic security and its global "war on terror," the UN finds itself at a difficult turning point, torn between the need to protect personnel and its historic commitment to serve desperate populations.

"Clearly, this is no longer business as usual," says one UN official. "All of a sudden, the idea the UN may be seen as an enemy by a small nihilist, fundamentalist segment of the population is very worrisome. Any major deployment of UN personnel in the future is going to have a big, up-front security component."

In a report released Wednesday, an independent panel appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sharply criticized the UN for a failure "to comply with its own security regulations," which "would certainly have minimized the vulnerability of staff."

The reverberations are being felt in Iraq, and beyond.

The UN has withdrawn nearly all international staff from Iraq, a blow to a Bush administration that often argues that conditions in the country are improving. While European leaders press for the UN to assume a greater role in Iraq, Mr. Annan - under internal pressure from staff, some of whom are upset that the UN appears complicit with a preemptive US war they opposed - will probably keep his people out until the US relinquishes greater authority to the UN. UN staff won a key concession in the new US-sponsored Security Council resolution last week, as Annan now has the discretion to send his staff back "as circumstances permit."

Meanwhile, the myriad UN agencies - like the UN Development Program, with projects in 166 different countries - are now rethinking the way they conduct operations in the field. The open-door policy may be a thing of the past. So, too, the policy of unarmed guards, as was the case in Iraq.

"In order for us to be effective, people have to feel comfortable coming to us, and a heavily fortified facility may not send that welcoming message," says another UN staffer, who requested anonymity. (Only UN spokespeople and agency chiefs are permitted to speak on the record.) "On the other hand, we have to provide some protection to our staff. How to strike a balance? The UN in a bunker isn't the UN anymore. Without appearing to look like we're overreacting, in countries where the perceived threat is higher, we've sent out alerts to be more vigilant."

UN staff say danger comes with the terrain: Their services are most needed in the world's most wretched regions. But their work has grown more risky.

Neutrality and impartiality are core tenets of the UN Charter. During the first four decades of its existence, the UN was generally invited in to provide humanitarian work, or inserted between warring neighbors to monitor a cease-fire, maintain a truce, or oversee elections. In a sense, the Aug. 19 attack is an exclamation mark on a decade-old trend that began with the end of the cold war, as internal conflicts proliferated and numerous nation-states collapsed.

In the 1990s, UN aid workers and peacekeepers found themselves in complex war zones, with ambiguous mandates open to interpretation, or in chaotic conflicts amid multiple rebel groups, where one side might perceive the UN as favoring the enemy.

Attacks on the UN have climbed. Since 1992, 196 UN personnel have been killed in the field: victims of random violence or street crime, caught in the crossfire, or targeted simply for being UN, according to a report Annan released earlier this month.

Then came the Aug. 19 attack, which killed 22 in all, including UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injured 150. Mr. Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian enormously popular with staff, reputedly insisted on unarmed guards, a symbolic contrast with the occupation forces. "We assumed that distinction would be clear to Iraqis," says one official. Vieira de Mello's last words reportedly were that the UN must not abandon Iraq. But a second blast at the UN, by a suicide car bomber on Sept. 22 that killed an Iraqi security guard, convinced the UN to scale down dramatically.

From a prewar high of 600 international staff, just 30 remain. Most of the workload now falls to the roughly 4,000 Iraqi UN staff.

UN personnel Friday speak of improving security by providing personal training, beefing up overall organizational security, and putting pressure on governments to end the perception of impunity for attacking the UN.

At the UN's World Food Program, which alone has seen 50 colleagues killed since 1963, officials have required more safety training. As a result, fatalities dropped sharply in the 1990s.

"You learn what precautions to take, when you shouldn't expose yourself to danger and when you can," says Trevor Rowe, a spokesman for the WFP, which has downsized its staff from 150 to 10 in Iraq. "It's not a science, but something that demands consideration."

There's now a move toward consolidating UN agencies, which are sometimes spread out across a city. Relocating to one compound may make it a more inviting target, some say, but it also allows agencies to pool their resources and build new safeguards.

And one week after the Aug. 19 attack, Annan and the Security Council reiterated the call for member-states to implement the "Convention on the Safety of United Nations and Associated Personnel." The nine-year-old convention requires countries that host UN personnel to provide for their protection, work to prevent attacks, pass legislation that would make attacks on the UN criminal, and prosecute violators.

"The UN is a highly motivated, service-oriented institution, generally willing to go anywhere, any time, to some of the most challenging places on earth," says Steven Dimoff of the United Nations Association, a New York-based think tank. "It's not too much to expect that the international community will back them up and provide for their safety."

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