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Handmaid in Babylon


“One has to be careful,” said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in late August, “not to confuse the UN with the US.” If the Secretary General had taken his own advice, then maybe his Brazilian subordinate, Sergio Vieira de Mello, might not have been so summarily blown to pieces in Baghdad two days earlier. As things are, the UN still craves the handmaid role the US desperately needs in Iraq as political cover.

Whichever group sent that truck bomb on its way decided that Vieira and his boss were so brazen in moving the UN to play a fig-leaf role in the US occupation of Iraq that spectacular action was necessary to draw attention to the process the process. So the UN man handpicked by the White House paid with his life.

To get a sense of how swift has been the conversion of the UN into after-sales service provider for the world’s prime power, just go back to 1996, when the United States finally decided that Annan’s predecessor as UN Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, had to go.

In a pleasing foreshadowing of Annan’s plaintive remark cited above, Boutros-Ghali told Clinton’s top foreign policy executives, “Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from US policy.” But unlike Annan he did so, harshly contrasting western concern for Bosnia, whose conflict he described as “a war of the rich” with its indifference to the genocide in Rwanda and to horrifying conditions throughout the third world. Then, in April 1996,he went altogether too far, when he insisted on publication of the findings of the UN inquiry which implicated Israel in the killing of some hundred civilians who had taken refuge in a United Nations camp in Kanaa in south Lebanon.

In a minority of one on the Security Council the US insisted on exercising its veto of a second term for Boutros-Ghali. James Rubin, erstwhile State Department spokesman, wrote his epitaph in the Financial Times: Boutros-Ghali was “unable to understand the importance of cooperation with the world’s first power.” It took another foreign policy operative of the Clinton era to identify Annan’s appeal to Washington. Richard Holbrooke later recalled that in 1995 there was a “dual key” arrangement, whereby both Boutros-Ghali and the NATO commander had to jointly approve bombing.Boutros-Ghali had vetoed all but the most limited pinprick bombing of the Serbs, for fear of appearing to take sides. But when Boutros-Ghali was travelling, Annan was left in charge of the U.N. key. “When Kofi turned it,” Holbrooke told Philip Gourevich of the New Yorker, “he became Secretary-General in waiting.” There was of course a further, very terrible service rendered by Annan, in which, in deference to the American desire to keep Sarajevo in the limelight, he suppressed the warnings of the Canadan General Romeo Dallair that appalling massacres were about to start in Rwanda.

Of course even in the UN’s braver days, there were always the realities of power to be acknowledged, but UN Secretaries General such as Dag Hammarskjold and U Thant, were men of stature. These days UN functionaries such as Annan and the late Vieira, know full well that their careers depend on American patronage. Vieira was a bureaucrat, never an elected politician, instrumental in establishing the UN protectorate system in Kosovo.

Then he was the beneficiary of an elaborate and instructive maneuver, in which the US was eager to rid itself of the inconvenient Jose Mauricio Bustani, another Brazilian, from his post as head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Chemical Weapons Convention’s implementing organization. Bustani was no US catspaw but adamant in maintaining his organization’s independence, and admired round the world for his energy in seeking to rid the world of chemical weapons.

When UNSCOM withdrew from Iraq in 1998, hopelessly compromised and riddled with spies, Bustani’s OPCW was allowed in to continue verification of destruction of WMDs. The US feared Bustani would persuade Saddam Hussein to sign the Chemical Weapons convention and accept inspections from Bustani’s organization, thus allowing the possibility of credible estimates of Iraq’s arsenal that might prove inconvenient to the US. Brazil was informed that if it supported the ouster of Bustani, it would be rewarded with US backing for Vieira’s elevation to the post of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, replacing another object of US disfavor, Mary Robinson.

Vieira was duly appointed. Then, earlier this year, the imperial finger crooked an urgent summons for him to come to Washington for inspection by Condoleezza Rice. Vieira made all the right. Desperate for UN cover in Iraq, the Bush White House pressured Annan to appoint Vieira as UN Special Envoy to Iraq.

Vieira installed himself in Baghdad where, in cooperation with the US proconsul Paul Bremer, his priority together a puppet Governing Council of Iraqis, serving at the pleasure of the Coalition Provisional Authority. The council was replete with such notorious fraudsters as Ahmad Chalabi. It was formed on July 13. Nine days later Vieira was at the UN in New York, proclaiming with a straight face that “we now have a formal body of senior and distinguished Iraqi counterparts, with credibility and authority, with whom we can chart the way forward.we now enter a new stage that succeeds the disorienting power vacuum that followed the fall of the previous regime.”

Though it did not formally recognize the Governing Council, the UN Security Council eagerly commended this achievement. The Financial Times editorialized on August 19: “America’s friends, such as India, Turkey Pakistan and even France, which opposed the war, should stand ready to help. But they need UN cover.” In Baghdad, the next day, in the form of the truck bomb, came an answer. Two days later, Kofi Annan counselled on the dangers of confusing the UN with the US.

If he meant what he said Annan should obviously resign forthwith as the man who has done more than any figure alive to equate the two. But who would imagine Africa’s Waldheim being capable of that?


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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