Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

Sri Lanka on the Edge Again (March 29, 2004)
"This relatively small island nation will hold an election Friday that many Sri Lankans believe will decide whether ethnic conflict is really over or has only paused before plunging into a disastrous new phase."

Banker Plans To Put UN Show on the Road (March 22, 2004)
"'When the truck comes into a city, I want it to blow people away.' A senior vice president at Morgan Stanley has designed a rolling exhibition—a sort of U.N.-mobile—that he hopes to put on the road before the end of the year."

Afghanistan Prepares to Choose a Government (March 15, 2004)
"The creation of a democratic culture and democratic institutions is the hard part. The ubiquitous international election monitors almost always arrive too late to see the confusion and intimidation that has preceded the opening of polling booths."

Putting ECOSOC Back in the Loop (March 8, 2004)
"The UN's Economic and Social Council sank into obscurity over the decades, upstaged by the Security Council, the General Assembly, and a host of agencies working on what should have been primarily ECOSOC's issues: development, health, and human rights."

Arab Women Leaders Exerting Growing Influence at UN (March 1, 2004)
"If leading Arab women at the United Nations seem to be in the background, that is no reflection of a meekness or deference to male-dominated cultures."

Saving the U.N. From Utah (February 23, 2004)
"What is it with Utah?... Some local politicians have become convinced that the United Nations has caused the United States to 'lose' every war since World War II."

As Chile Reaches High Development Level, UN Shifts Strategy (February 17, 2004)
"While the world may hear more from Brazil, a much larger nation in both land and population, Chile ... cannot be underestimated as a potential hemispheric leader or an important voice for the wider global South."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | April 7, 2004
from U. N. Wire The UN's Real Blunder in Iraq

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—Just when it was beginning to look as if the scars of last year's collision between the United States and the United Nations over Iraq were fading, two new developments threaten to damage and undermine the organization's standing. Again, the bedeviled country is Iraq.

First there were the accusations, reported initially from Baghdad, that U.N. officials may have been among those who profited from illegal deals with the Saddam Hussein regime through the diversion of "oil-for-food" money intended to assist beleaguered Iraqis living under sanctions.

This problem would be more manageable had the reports not been taken up by influential American conservatives, some with long records of ill-informed criticism of the United Nations, who may now see a way to undercut the organization's credibility as it moves toward a larger role in Iraq after June 30.

Still, the United Nations has this matter in hand. Secretary General Kofi Annan, backed by the Security Council, has ordered an inquiry by an independent commission. There is considerable skepticism among officials and diplomats about the validity of the documentation coming out of Baghdad. Neither the ousted Iraqi government nor some of its exiled opponents were known for transparency or honesty. One of the pieces of supporting evidence naming a British politician has already been proved fraudulent.

Moreover, it has been known since at least 2000 that the Iraqis were involved in skimming, leveling illegal surcharges and taking kickbacks. Reports from the secretary general to the Security Council as early as March 2001 warned against the illegal surcharges, which amounted to bribes. The council—that is to say, the United States, United Kingdom, China, France and Russia, the permanent five members—chose not to press the issue, though U.S. and European business leaders were complaining.

The second issue is, in the long run, more serious.

Last week, the secretary general fired the U.N. security coordinator for an unconscionable failure to protect U.N. staff in Iraq, a lapse that led to the death in a bombing on Aug. 19 of 22 people, including the head of the mission, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and one of the world's leading advocates for refugees, Arthur C. Helton of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was in Vieira de Mello's office for a meeting.

Other U.N. officials have been demoted and reassigned or will face disciplinary action after a second damning report, released last week, on the ill-preparedness of the United Nations as Iraq became more violent.

Warnings of mounting danger and demands for urgent security measures from local experts in the weeks preceding the bombing "went unheeded, or else they were dealt with in a manner which was so lethargic that it defeated the purpose of the exercise," said the latest investigating panel, headed by Gerald Walzer, a former deputy high commissioner for refugees with long experience in crisis areas.

While the outright dismissal of anyone in a position of real authority in the United Nations might be hailed as a step forward, there are many more troubling aspects of this case that speak to the whole issue of a "U.N. culture" where professionalism and accountability are both too often absent.

It is difficult to fathom why Tun Myat, an official from Myanmar with no professional training or expertise in security, was appointed the organization's security coordinator in the first place—and by Annan, who has a stellar record in making meaningful appointments. Tun Myat, who had qualifications in insurance and law, had worked in Iraq as a coordinator for the oil-for-food program before moving to New York to take over the security chief's job.

He may have known Iraq, but he had neither the skills nor, apparently, the determination to take his elevated position in New York very seriously. But then, Myanmar is a country where security largely means keeping dissenters quiet, not protecting people.

Here is what the Walzer commission said of Tun Myat's performance last year: "He appeared oblivious to the developing crisis and made little effort to ensure that his staff had sufficient management skills and resources to enable them to fulfill their responsibilities."

Among the unbelievable things that happened in Baghdad was a decision to limit spending on a blast-resistant covering for windows to what could be taken from petty cash—a large percentage of the human casualties last August came from flying glass—and months of foot-dragging on building a perimeter wall around the Canal Hotel. This complex was a former Iraq hotel school that the United Nations had been using since the early 1990s as a headquarters for arms inspectors and the oil-for-food program. It was a set of buildings with vulnerabilities that the United Nations should have known well.

On June 8, the night of a mysterious incident involving what appeared to be an attempt by unknown people to block the route of Vieira de Mello's security escort, Ramiro Lopes de Silva, a Portuguese national responsible for U.N. security in Baghdad, did not want the event reported to New York, though it might have been a harbinger of worse to come. He has now been transferred to another U.N. job. Staff members want to know why he is not also out of work.

For almost a decade, the United Nations has been preoccupied with mounting attacks on humanitarian workers. There have been deaths and many injuries from Chechnya to Burundi to East Timor and other extremities of U.N. activity. By last June, Iraq was becoming a place far more dangerous than anywhere else.

Yet too many people involved in protecting U.N. staff in Iraq—including, at times, Vieira de Mello himself, according to the commission—seemed to think that they were immune. Some U.N. officials were, indeed, publicly scorning suggestions that they should have been demanding more protection from the U.S. military. They did not want to be seen to be part of the "occupation." They badly miscalculated the venom in the air, or thought it was saved for American targets.

In 1968, the Swedish anthropologist and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal wrote about "soft states" in his book Asian Drama. In soft states, inefficiencies (and corruption) weakened responses to challenges and guaranteed substandard governance. There are still many "soft states" in the United Nations family and from time to time the mentality they foster creeps into the way the organization works. "Casual" was a word the Walzer commission used to define attitudes in Baghdad and New York.

A "soft state" mentality often explains why U.N. auditors met resistance to action when officials above them are found to be squandering resources. Now it has been demonstrated that irresponsibility, a lack of integrity and a careless inattention to duty can, tragically, carry a far higher, deadlier price.

The security team responsible for Iraq, the Walzer commission said, "steadfastly maintained the view, despite the rapidly deteriorating security situation, that the U.N. was protected by its neutrality and its humanitarian mandate. This belief proved to be ill-founded and the lack of preparedness brought about by the perception of immunity had tragic consequences, which have reverberated throughout the U.N. system."

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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National Journal Group. For information on National Journal Group publications, see

Copyright © 2003 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.