Friday, February 15, 2008

Military Inaction

from the Guardian Comment is Free full text
Ian Williams
14 February 2008

I've known Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos Horta for approaching 20 years, during which UN officialdom and western governments regarded him as a Don Quixote figure, tilting at the Indonesian windmill so firmly planted in his native land.

So on both private and public levels it was bad news that he had been shot. It was equally distressing to hear the allegation that the first UN police who had arrived at the scene stood back and left him bleeding on the road until their backup appeared. The UN representative has provided the police version, which, like most police exculpations across the world should be taken with a sack full of salt, and as Timor-Leste's own military chief said: "Even though it may have been possible and highly recommended, there was no immediate operation undertaken to arrest the personnel responsible for the attacks."

UN missions are in the classic positions of beggars deprived of choice, especially with police, and the Timor-Leste mission includes some of the finest police forces that money can buy, including Egypt, El Salvador, India, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine Yemen and, unforgettably, Zimbabwe.

You do not have to accept the principle of universal constabulary illegitimacy to consider that there are some police forces you are even less likely to rely.

But the other feeling was of déjà vu all over again, in the worst days of the UN during the Bosnian war, when French marines opened the door of an APC while a Serb militiaman shot seven or eight times into the Bosnian deputy prime minister Hakija Turajlic, whom the French were supposed to be protecting. The French colonel in charge, Patrice Sartre, had ordered British reinforcements to move away, and his men took no action to stop or apprehend the murderer who had the leisure to fire with impunity.

One would have thought that losing a deputy prime minister may cause a blot on one's military escutcheon, but it does not seem to have affected Sartre's career. He retired recently as a general after commanding operations in places like Rwanda, where the French forces went to the rescue to the genocidaires, and even a spell as French military attaché to the UN.

However, this is about par for the course. The Dutch soldiers who stood by at Srebrenica and watched general Ratko Mladic's Serbs lead away 8,000 men for slaughter, were given an official welcome and medals all round when they got home. The officials and politicians in New York and the various capitals who refused to allow air support did not resign in disgrace and went on to greater things with their CV's untrammelled by their tacit complicity in an act of genocide.

In fact, while in Rwanda, Sartre met Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who deserves an opera, a tragedy of his own. He was abandoned by UN officialdom and the great powers and tried to save as many as he could from the genocide going on around him - in effect defying orders to do so. It would be fair to say that the Canadian military was not supportive on his return.

In Timor-Leste itself, when the pro-Indonesian militia ran riot, the UN pulled out, against, one might think, the wishes of many of the contingent.

In the end, it all comes back to a culture of impunity. If the cops, or marines, feel any responsibility, it is to their national commands. The UN mission heads are stuck between lack of disciplinary powers against their motley contingents and lack support from bureaucrats far away who need to pander to countries to raise forces.

Nevertheless, if the UN police in Timor-Leste did stand by and watch Ramos Horta bleed, they should be on the next plane out, and their pay docked of the handsome subsistence allowance that induce them to volunteer.

For the future, the idea of dedicated UN forces stirs up deep atavistic fears in the wackos who run the Republican party. But in fact, the security forces that guard UN buildings across the world could easily be the core of a UN police force. They have the training, discipline and corps d'esprit that seem so totally lacking in the pluralistic plods in Dili.

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