Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:

McAskie One of UN's Few Women Special Representatives (June 7, 2004)
"Women, few as they are in this line of work, seem to get the toughest assignments."

Low-Tech Solutions Often Key to Third World Problems (May 31, 2004)
"Creativity born of necessity can help make life longer and better in the poorest countries."

A University in a Class by Itself (May 24, 2004)
"Not many people know that the UN has a university of its own. It has no basketball team nor even a traditional campus. It is a research institution that serves as a think tank for the United Nations."

Millions of People Worldwide on the Move (May 17, 2004)
"Migrations, particularly illegal movements of people, are cause for concern in every region. There has never been a migration study this big or ambitious. The topic has some built-in tensions, and opening it up for world scrutiny risks some hazards."

No Simple Place to Pin Blame for Iraq Oil-For-Food Problems (May 10, 2004)
"The U.S. General Accounting Office is documenting what a shambles the U.S. made of the oil-for-food program after it took over in November, and warning that the new Iraq must be watched closely or history will repeat itself."

Reducing Poverty Takes More Than Just Money (May 3, 2004)
"Poverty has so many other facets beyond what it takes to live from day to day.... Unless all countries and international financial institutions look at the big picture, people in developing countries don't stand a chance of significant gains."

More from U.N. Notebook.

U.N. Notebook | June 14, 2004
from U. N. Wire When Peacekeeping Turns to Despair

by Barbara Crossette

UNITED NATIONS—A new and disturbing book is getting a lot of attention around the United Nations—so much that two of its three authors, who still work for the organization, fear they will be dismissed because they did not get permission to publish it.

The book, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story From Hell on Earth, was written by three young people who had found their way into U.N. service in a series of crisis areas and came away demoralized and angry.

While this book may not be a great literary work, or even a reasoned account of life in some of the most horrendous places on earth—indeed, it reads like a film script-in-waiting—what makes it worrying to readers who have seen the United Nations in action all over the world is this: The interwoven accounts of the three authors—Kenneth Cain, a lawyer; Heidi Postlewait, a social worker; and Andrew Thomson, a physician—reveal not only how idealism can tarnish in desperate conditions but also how careless the United Nations seems to be in assigning people to critical jobs.

Perhaps worse, the book seems to reveal between the lines how little care is taken to monitor or help overcome the mental trauma that can be as damaging to U.N. staff as it is to the battered people they are supposed to be helping. At one point Thomson came close to suicide.

It isn't easy for a greenhorn from middle class America or a lot of other countries to see buddies killed senselessly or to discover that the world out there can be a pretty terrible place when you have to live in it day to day. Or to work under a superior officer who seems indifferent to tragedy.

Of the three authors, whose paths crossed all over the world, forging a bond among them, only Thomson, a New Zealander, emerges from the book as a person who began his career with a deep commitment to serve people in crisis. The other two, both Americans, appear to have drifted into U.N. work for lack of alternatives, and then were reassigned over and over again to new missions despite their growing alienation.

For Postlewait—if she is truly being fair to herself as much as she is brutally frank—life soon descended into a haze of alcohol and opportunistic sex. Cain, who left the United Nations while the other two remain in the organization, became a full-time writer and human rights advocate. He defends Postlewait.

"Friendship is magnified—that's a big part of what this book is based on," he said in an interview last week. "Your faith, or your questions about faith, are magnified. I think your anger becomes magnified as people die around you, perhaps needlessly. Your screaming desire to remember that you are alive is magnified. One manifestation of that is what we in the field call emergency sex."

For those of us who have seen the United Nations working in some of the toughest places—teeming refugee camps, squalid field hospitals and war zones where the enemy is anywhere and everywhere—and who have joined in their impromptu parties—the book certainly does seem exaggerated, or at least not a full or fair story. Thomson acknowledged in an interview that most U.N. staff in the field are doing a good job.

But on the other hand, reporters do hear similar tales of miscast U.N. officials and meet mission staff in various places who seem inept or disinterested, sometimes in the most delicate operations.

"Most U.N. staff we worked with on mission were hardworking and courageous, ready to put their lives on the line to make peace," Thomson said in a follow-up e-mail. "But all that good work can backfire, or else be undone, by just [a] few senior people more interested in saving their jobs than saving lives. That's what two years working in the mass graves of Rwanda and Srebrenica taught me."

Coincidentally, the book, published by Miramax Books, arrives just after Secretary General Kofi Annan reported to the Security Council on the status of attempts to protect civilians in armed conflict. His report, which draws attention to the persistence of sexual abuse and exploitation of women and girls in troubled areas, also takes notice of the shortcomings of the United Nations in policing its own staff.

Accusations continue to be made of U.N. mission employees' involvement in sexual violence and the demand for sexual favors in return for aid, most recently in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It really doesn't matter if the accused are headquarters staff or, more frequently, locally hired workers. Nor can the organization continue indefinitely to explain away abuses by saying that peacekeeping or other missions have no juridical authority over contingents sent by national governments. Almost always, a person sent home for unacceptable if not criminal behavior gets off lightly.

"The deeply disturbing issue of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and children in armed conflict by United Nations personnel—both civilian staff and uniformed peacekeeping personnel—has been the focus of considerable attention since my last report," the secretary general wrote in late May, referring to the past 18 months.

He says that several initiatives have been taken to correct problems, including that of human trafficking, "a related issue of increasing concern," which the peacekeeping department is now addressing. This follows reports from independent organizations about the prevalence of prostitution around U.N. missions, whether or not organization staff has been actively involved.

Cain sees a much bigger human rights failure, based largely on his work in the 1990s in U.N. missions in Africa.

"We went into these missions with the highest of hopes," he wrote in an e-mail message following an interview. "It was the end of the Cold War, we were going to export peace and democracy. 'Never again' was going to mean something in the real world at last."

Instead, he said, the United Nations squandered its moral authority, watching a million civilians die in Bosnia and Rwanda and a war in Liberia prolonged.

U.N. officials and independent commissions would, and have, agreed with this stinging assessment. In almost all cases, the reluctance of Security Council members, particularly the United States, was behind the delay and neglect in crisis areas. Still, the authors of the book give no quarter or sympathy.

"Is this human rights work?" Cain asks. "I quit in disgust after Liberia. I came to believe that meaningful human rights work only happens outside the official structure of the organization."

In the book, Thomson's sentiments were similar. "I should never have joined the U.N. thinking we could make peace everywhere," he wrote. "I ought to have known better."

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 © 2004 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.