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Ian Williams: Untangling the Oil for Food Knot

Ian WilliamsMichael Soussan's Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in International Diplomacy (Nation Books, 2008) is a compelling, fascinating, and humorous account of his years working with the UN's Oil for Food program. This by no means a definitive account of the program, but rather a personal and highly impressionist view from an insider. But his impressions have the ring of truth for anyone who has observed the UN at close range and even more so for anyone who knows the characters with whom he worked. As a writer, he was blessed, since the Oil for Food program was short on gray bureaucrats and big on distinctively eccentric characters. In fact, he does not appear to realize just how much the pugnacity and stubborn-ness of his boss, "Pasha" Benon Sevan, may have been critical in getting the program up and running. If he had played by the bureaucratic rules, Iraqis would have been waiting for their rations while memos piled up on desks across the Secretariat. But eccentricity has its limits. There are echoes of Catch 22 in Soussan's narrative, not least of which is a female ex-PFC Wintergreen, "Cindy," the administrative assistant, whose attempt to secure promotion and recognition included fighting a war of bureaucratic attrition that at times almost brought the program (that was feeding the bulk of the Iraqi population) to a halt. Inexperienced and idealistic, Soussan soon realized that had joined "an organization riddled with internal turf wars, petty office politics, dramatic personal rivalries, and in our case, a shameless competition for control over more money than the UN system had ever seen."

David A. Andelman: The UN Befouls Lac Léman

David A. Andelman, EditorGENEVA—Here on the glistening shores of Lac Léman, large chunks of what should be the best of the United Nations are quietly being taken hostage. Perhaps it’s the DNA of failure that’s embedded in the walls of the old Palais des Nations where the League of Nations once met, without a single American delegate, and failed to prevent the rise of Nazism, Krystallnacht, the Holocaust and ultimately the Second World War. More likely, it’s some instinct of bureaucrats. Once they get their hands on a sinecure of mediocrity, they’re inclined to do their damndest to hang onto it, no matter how grotesquely distorted it becomes thanks to the single-mindedness of a small minority of the world that believes more passionately that their religion, their political system or simply their right to rule should hold sway. As any UN guide will explain to his or her captive audience of international tourists, the UN center in Geneva is devoted largely to humanitarian, social and economic issues, leaving politics, diplomacy and the preservation of peace to the more accomplished diplomats back in the Secretariat building on the East Side of Manhattan. So it’s here, especially in the critical human rights area that things have gone so badly wrong. Ruth Wedgwood, an independent human rights expert in Geneva for the past five years, a member of World Policy Journal’s editorial board, and a brilliant professor of international law and diplomacy at The Johns Hopkins University in Washington, writes that “regional politics still drags like a befouled trawler net across the ideals of the United Nations organization.” What she means, and what apparently caused the resignation of the brilliant and effective UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canadian jurist Louise Arbour, is the fact that the 132 members of the so-called Group of 77 “southern states” representing the developing world, and most specifically its 56-member Islamic subset, have effectively hijacked the entire human rights process and used it as a mechanism to beat up on Israel and its “treatment” of Palestinians. There’s been no mention of Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, where Judge Arbour previously served as chief prosecutor for war crime trials. Nor, indeed of most of the other most egregious violators of human rights of their own or neighboring citizens, particularly in the third world.

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