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« The End of the Zimbabwean Farce? | Main | R.I.P. Alison Des Forges »

The UN flag in tatters: Lakhdar Brahimi at LSE

Sometimes life feels like the endless discovery of things I should already have known. One of them is certainly who Lakhdar Brahimi is. This man has been closely involved with almost every major human catastrophe for the past 20 years, trying to find resolutions and lessons, avenues of hope and opportunities for peace, and doing fairly well at it. He was a central player in the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1990, involved in the end of apartheid shortly thereafter, wrote the central lessons-learned report for the UN following the Srebrenica massacre, and on and on. You know you’re a man of import when Kofi Annan phones you on 12 September 2001 and asks you to become the special envoy to Afghanistan.

Watching him talk at the London School of Economics this week, I’m fascinated by the deep laughter lines of his face; grinning clearly comes easily to him. It strikes me that I am witnessing the peacemaker as species – a quintessential example of the form. Mediation is about more than politics because it isn’t so strictly about self-aggrandisement. What is required is a near superhuman ability to set aside your prejudices and accept situations exactly as you find them. That grin is an essential tool. 

At one point someone asks him how he can deal with some of the despicable thugs his work has required him to face. He says there are limits to who he’ll talk to, but that ultimately this is what he does. There are still moments of doubt: “One day [during the Lebanese civil war] I stopped and said to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here?!’ These are not nice people. Nice people are in Paris. But, then, I’m not a human rights lawyer; I’m a peacemaker. So I stayed.”

The point being that there is little room for the moral absolutes of human rights campaigners in this line of work. The job requires a quite astonishing level of moral relativity, as evidenced by Brahimi’s surprisingly generous assessment of the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Omar (Brahimi is the only diplomat ever to negotiate with Omar, in 1998, during his first stint as UN special envoy to Afghanistan). “Mullah Omar was very handsome, very soft-spoken, very shy; very self-conscious about his missing eye – he kept trying to hide it. He was an idealist, and contrary to what people think, in many, many places in Afghanistan, the Taliban were welcomed. As long as you kept your womenfolk at home, they left you alone. That’s what people wanted.”

“Of all the people we were dealing with, there’s no doubt the Taliban were the most honest. We have demonised them a bit excessively.” Three people in reserved seats in front of me tense up. I find out later that they are Afghans, and they are no doubt thinking about various genocidal atrocities. But this is the weird world of the peacemaker. His job when meeting Omar was to get him to give back some Iranian trucks, a theft that was bringing the two countries to the brink of war. To his surprise, the Taliban eventually gave back all the trucks,“Every single one.” One could argue that returning some items that they stole in the first place in order to avert a crippling war with a major regional power hardly absolves the Taliban of the fact that they are a bunch of sociopathic, blood-crazed, homicidal maniacs. But that’s why I’m not a peacemaker. 

Operating in this realm has taught Brahimi two fundamental points, which formed the basis of his analysis of the UN’s function post-Srebrenica and have a general application to the utility of international organisations in the future: “When you give a mandate for action, make sure it’s do-able. And make sure you provide the right tools.” Simple advice that had been forgotten amid the blind optimism of the early ‘90s, the belief that no plight was too small, and that expediency could finally coincide with high ethical standards.

Bosnia highlighted the need to reign in expectations, for fear of watching the UN’s credibility crumble entirely. We are, Brahimi fears, back there again. “The Security Council has relapsed into totally unrealistic mandates which achieve no results.” He brings up the example of Darfur, to which the UN vowed to send 26,000 troops in 2006. They still haven’t arrived. “If they continue like this, we’ll be back to talk about ‘What’s the use of the UN?’” 

Worse, Brahimi’s his time as special envoy to Iraq (2003-05), makes him fear that the UN’s problems are more serious than failing to meet commitments – he sees the organisation corrupted by its association with an occupying power. “Iraq was a very big turning point. The flag of the UN used to mean protection. We used to go everywhere just with a flag. Now, the flag is in tatters.”

As Charles Bukowski used to say: “If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise don’t even start.” This seems to be the kernel of Brahimi’s message too (although he’s probably not talking about getting drunk at two in the afternoon in a dilapidated strip club). The UN doesn’t have limitless resources. It can’t come close to affording the astronomical bills paid out to protect British and American diplomats in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its chief resource is its credibility as a mediator, something that demands a clear-eyed recognition of the constraints on its actions, and which has barely survived the brutal undermining of its status by the Bush administration. Of course, like all good peacemakers, Brahimi remains optimistic: “I think it’s do-able to help Afghanistan build a state, and if you need to talk to the Taliban, who better than the UN ... [and] I’m encouraged by Susan Rice. She seems to understand that a credible UN isn’t a bad thing.” He grins that same grin that has cajoled so many in the past, and I want to share his optimism, I really do.


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