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"The UN's poisoned chalice"
Comment by ICG Board Member William Shawcross, Evening Standard, 11 October 2001


If the American coalition deposes the Taliban, Kofi Annan and the United Nations will come to the fore as the Allies push for elections in Afghanistan. The UN is the only body who could supervise a poll but securing any sort of stability would earn Annan a score of peace prizes.

Where is the UN in all this? people ask. The answer is that it is not yet at the fore, but may soon be. It has had a mandate since the late Eighties to bring about a political settlement and a broadbased government in Afghanistan.

Now, more and more people in Washington and Brussels are suggesting the wreckage of Afghanistan be handed over to the UN once the Taliban are ousted. Talk about a poisoned chalice.

In looking at the UN's response so far, it is worth remembering that while we talk loosely of "the United Nations", the term covers many different parts of the organisation. There is the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, the Security Council, the General Assembly, and the specialist frontline agencies - in particular the UN High Commission for Refugees, which is often on the cutting edge of a humanitarian crisis such as has developed in Afghanistan - Unicef, the World Food Programme and others.

Mr Annan, who is on the shortlist for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, has been using his "good offices" quietly talking to dozens of governments through the storm. He was in New York when the attacks occurred - the UN building was evacuated lest it too might be a target - and he immediately issued a statement saying: "We are all traumatised by this terrible tragedy. These attacks are deliberate acts of terrorism carefully planned and co-ordinated and as such, I condemn them utterly."

Since then both the Security Council, the UN's executive arm, and the General Assembly, its longwinded parliament, have condemned the attacks.

The Council has expressed its "determination to combat by all means" the terrorist attacks. It has also recognised the right to self-defence. When the US and British bombing began, Mr Annan said that they "have set their current military action in Afghanistan in that context". So far, so good, but as the war on terrorism continues, the unity of the world is likely to fray.

By a twist of fate, one of the states which Washington considers a sponsor of terrorism is about to join the Security Council. Syria, with massive support, has just been elected unopposed for a two-year term. There were no rival candidates from any other Arab nations.

Last year Washington campaigned successfully against Sudan (another state it considers terrorist) getting on the Council. This time, instead of contesting Syria, it has been trying to enlist its support for the coalition against terrorism. That will not be easy. Syria is one of the hereditary dictatorships more common in the Arab world than elsewhere. Iraq is likely to be another, if Saddam survives to anoint his son.

When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his ruthless and wily father Hafez in Syria last year, there were hopes that he would prove more moderate. The reverse has happened. The young Assad appears to be even more of a stumbling block to peace with Israel than his father. Those who think Sharon intransigent should consider Assad.

He has described the Arab-Israeli conflict as "a struggle between truth and falsehood, between the spirit of tolerance and peace of Islam and the Zionist path of racism and aggression - Israel has been committing [crimes] since it was [a bunch of] racist gangs and it still commits them now that it is a state based on loathsome racist values and hatred towards Arabs and Islam".

Last May, when welcoming the Pope to Syria, Assad declared that the Jews "kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him". He said that "we expect you to stand by" the people of Palestine and the Golan. This might be dismissed as mere presidential rhetoric. Perhaps more worrying is that in Syria anti-Semitism is imbibed with mother's milk.

Official education policy denounces compromise with the enemy and promotes martyrdom. "The logic of justice," stated Islamic education for the 10th grade in 1999-2000, "obligates the application of the single verdict [on the Jews] from which there is no escape; namely that their criminal intentions be turned against them and that they be exterminated. The duty of Muslims of our time is to pull themselves together, unite their ranks and wage war on their enemy until Allah hands down his judgment on them and us."

One might argue that such teaching is intended to inspire the likes of the suicide missions of 11 September. From 1 January next year one can expect the US and Britain to have a much harder ride in the Council.

On the ground many of the UN agencies are already having a hard ride. There were reports yesterday of Afghan UN staff being beaten by Taliban loyalists in Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, and vehicles stolen. On Monday, the offices of UNHCR and Unicef in Quetta, Pakistan, were attacked and the staff had to be withdrawn. They are apparently seen as too close to the war effort against Afghanistan - inevitably, the way in which President Bush and Tony Blair have emphasised their humanitarian efforts risks tarnishing the independent agencies as being part of the war effort.

If the High Commission for Refugees, Unicef and the World Food Programme are not free to bring in massive supplies to the refugees outside Afghanistan and the millions of people displaced within it, there will be a humanitarian disaster. Their independence from the war effort must be established and emphasised.

In the face of such turbulence the idea that the UN should take over the running of Afghanistan is one that fills UN officials with foreboding. Many remember how impossible it was to make Balkan enemies tolerate, let alone love each other. In Afghanistan the hatreds run far deeper. But just as Kosovo was handed to the UN once Nato had won the war there, so Afghanistan may be. As I mentioned, the mandate already exists. Tony Blair said yesterday that there should be elections in Afghanistan. Who else could hold them except the UN?

But a fundamental problem is who would police any ceasefire between the Afghan warlords. In Kosovo the job was done by Nato. The US, Britain and their allies have expressed reluctance to commit large numbers of ground troops to Afghanistan, the graveyard of so many foreign armies. Once again the UN would have to put together a peacekeeping force from third world countries. Planning may be beginning on the top floors of the UN, but it will be a long time before it can be implemented.

One thing is certain - if the UN can sort out Afghanistan, Kofi Annan will certainly have earned a score of peace prizes.

• William Shawcross is on the board of the International Crisis Group. His latest book is Deliver Us From Evil: Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict



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