Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

A New Step for the U.N.—an Ombudsman (July 8, 2003)
"Until now, most employees had to wait until an internal dispute provoked administrative action—and then appeal it."

U.N. Still Battered by U.S. Action On Iraq (July 1, 2003)
"Americans seem to hate the United Nations for not supporting the war, while a lot of the rest of the world hates the organization for not preventing it."

AIDS, Other Trends Give New Prominence To U.N. Population Division (June 23, 2003)
"Ethnic wars, epidemic diseases, huge migrations of people have helped make [the U.N. Population Division] one of the busiest offices in the U.N. Secretariat."

Fixing The Security Council (June 16, 2003)
"If the United States and the rest of the world seem to be looking at the same Security Council and seeing two very different images, most governments can agree on one point: the council needs fixing."

Peacekeeping's Unsavory Side (June 10, 2003)
"Among the uglier stories surrounding international peacekeeping in recent years is that U.N. operations too often fuel booms in local prostitution."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | July 8, 2003
from U. N. Wire Guess Who's Sustaining Iraq

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—At the beginning of this month, just as Americans were getting ready to fire up their barbecue grills for Independence Day, the World Food Program made a startling announcement in Baghdad. More than a million tons of food—enough to feed the entire population of Iraq for two full months—had been brought into the country since April. In the last 10 days of June alone, 90,000 tons of food were unloaded at the port of Umm Qasr, now connected by busy and relatively safe highways to Basra and Baghdad.

U.N officials admit with chagrin that there was no mention of this achievement in major news media, now riveted almost exclusively on daily casualty figures and the did-he-or-didn't he debate about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

It isn't just food. More broadly, almost nothing the United Nations and its multiple agencies have been accomplishing in Iraq has penetrated news reports dominated by officials in Washington and the U.S. military in the field.

Iraq watchers, however, are not missing the story of growing U.N. activity and influence in Iraq, and the pivotal role that Sergio Vieira de Mello, the secretary general's special envoy, is carving out of the fuzzy mandate the Security Council gave the organization in the face of the Bush administration's antagonism. Vieira de Mello, who arrived in Iraq in early June, is due to make his first report to the Security Council July 22 and his account deserves attention.

The U.S. State Department, at least, seems to have taken notice of the expanding U.N. presence. Carolyn McAskie, the U.N. deputy emergency relief coordinator, recently told a meeting of the Women's Foreign Policy Group, a private organization that promotes women's voices in international affairs, that she had been chided by Washington for sending an A-team to Iraq while pulling back in Ethiopia.

Nine U.N. agencies are now operating in Iraq, doing many of the jobs the U.S. military was apparently not prepared to tackle. There is a full-time humanitarian coordinator, Ramiro Lopez da Silva, who represents the New York-based Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and, although a U.N. official in New York joked grimly that in the American scheme of things the organization appears to have been assigned "sewers and garbage," its reach is far wider.

UNICEF, the children's fund, paid for the printing of 15 million examination booklets for annual summer testing and lobbied to get soldiers and new political parties out of school buildings so that teaching could resume. Last week, Geoffrey Keele, a UNICEF spokesman in Baghdad, said 5.5 million Iraqi children were able to complete their year-end exams. Along with the examination books, UNICEF had also distributed stationery, pens, computers and photocopiers to make the testing season as smooth as possible.

Around the world, relief experts such as those in the International Rescue Committee and the U.N. refugee agency have argued that one of the most effective ways to restore stability for children after a traumatic experience is to reintroduce the familiar routine of going to school. UNICEF had also given teachers 500 "school in a box" kits that will make work easier for 40,000 pupils. Earlier, Japan gave UNICEF the money to restore 350 school buildings, part of the 2,000 the agency is rehabilitating with a variety of partners.

The World Health Organization says it has supplied Iraq with enough insulin, asthma drugs, anesthetics, intravenous fluids, antiseptics and laboratory reagents to meet all national needs until the end of August. About 500 tons of medical supplies and hospital equipment are now arriving every week. The agency is also overseeing the removal of hospital waste to cut down on the spread of diseases and conducting health surveys nationwide to monitor battles against diarrhea and respiratory diseases as well as outbreaks of measles, whooping cough, mumps and diphtheria.

There still is the sewer and garbage front to tackle, of course, but U.N. agencies are making progress there, officials say. Seventy-three sewage pumping stations and two Baghdad water-treatment plants have been rehabilitated. Two million liters of drinking water are trucked into needy neighborhoods of the capital every day.

The United Nations is moving into some issues in Iraq that were not on the American agenda at the start, to judge from comments made by officials in Washington who wanted to confine the organization to relief work. UNIFEM, the development fund for women, is planning a program with the help of Iraqi nongovernmental organizations to position women for a significant role in the political process, now that some self-government has been promised. The future of women—and with it a modern and equitable social order—could hang in the balance if Islamic conservatives take power.

Vieira de Mello himself has attracted attention by moving around the country, meeting factional and religious leaders, among them some who have refused to talk with the Americans or British. On Thursday he told the Arab television network Al-Jazeera during a visit to Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, that he wanted to get away from the capital as often as possible to listen to "people in different parts of the country" and absorb the opinions of "Iraqis who feel that under the Saddam regime all decisions were made in Baghdad."

He is in regular contact with Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, who, officials say, has not traveled as widely or frequently as Vieira de Mello, nor been as accessible. Officials in New York say that the two have "almost daily" consultations and are working well together. In September, when Vieira de Mello is scheduled to leave Iraq—although there are those in the United Nations suggesting his tour could be extended—British U.N. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock will be arriving to serve not only as the top British representative in the country but also as a facilitator for enhancing the U.N. role in rebuilding the country. Officials in New York say he has begun consulting with Secretary General Kofi Annan on the future of Iraq.

Vieira de Mello, on leave from his regular job as U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has begun to venture into the issues of rights protection and the need to bring justice to Iraqis after years of oppression. At the end of June, he convened two days of talks on rights and justice for Iraqis from a variety of groups, at home and abroad. The question of how to deal with the atrocities of the Saddam Hussein regime has been a divisive one, with leading international law experts and organizations such as the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York arguing for an international commission to begin looking into the creation of a special judicial process with U.N. involvement. The Bush administration, adamantly opposed to the International Criminal Court and pressing to wind up international tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda, has said that the search for justice will be handled by Iraqi courts. U.N. officials say Washington has pointedly not asked the organization for judicial help.

Noting the untold number of deaths, the approximately 300,000 Iraqis still missing from the Hussein years, and rising demands for retribution and reparations as well as justice, Vieira de Mello told his audience June 30 that one of the questions that must be asked is, "Can the Iraqi legal system in its present shape address these serious challenges?"

"There is an opportunity for us all—Iraqi lawyers and human rights activists, international experts and representatives of the coalition—to discuss and identify guiding international principles and policy options to ensure accountability and justice," he said. "This need has, shamefully, only belatedly been acknowledged by the international community."

What do you think? Discuss this article in the Foreign Affairs conference of Post & Riposte.

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.