The Folly Of The United Nations (UN)
by Dale Van Atta Readers Digest, 11/1995

Not only have its efforts to bring peace often been failures, but the organisation itself is riddled with waste, fraud and abuse.

AS THE United Nations approaches its fiftieth anniversary this year, Reader's Digest assigned Roving Editor Dale Van Atta to examine UN operations and effectiveness. For four months he interviewed dozens of officials and poured over UN budget documents and confidential files. He found an institution in critical need of reform.

Sonja's Kon-Tiki Café is a notorious Serbian watering hole ten kilometres north of Sarajevo. While Serb soldiers perpetrated atrocities in nearby Bosnian villages, local residents reported that UN peacekeepers from France, Ukraine, Canada and New Zealand regularly visited Sonja's, drinking and eating with these very same soldiers — and sharing their women.

The women of Sonja's, however, were actually prisoners of the Serb soldiers. As one soldier, Borislav Herak, would later confess, he visited Sonja's several times a week, raping some of the 70 females present and killing two of them.

UN soldiers patronised Sonja's even after a Sarajevo newspaper reported where the women were coming from. A UN spokesman excused the incident by saying no-one was assigned to read the newspaper. The UN soldiers who frequented Sonja's also neglected to check out the neighbourhood. Just over 60 metres away, a concentration camp held Bosnian Muslims in inhuman conditions. Of 800 inmates processed, 250 disappeared and are presumed dead.

Tragically, Sonja's Kon-Tiki illustrates much of what has plagued UN peacekeeping operations: incompetent commanders, undisciplined soldiers, alliances with aggressors, failure to prevent atrocities and at times even contributing to the horror. And the level of waste, fraud and abuse is overwhelming.

Until recently, the UN rarely intervened in conflicts. When it did, as in Cyprus during the 1960s and '70s, it had its share of success. But as the Cold War ended, the UN became the world's policeman, dedicated to nation building and peacekeeping. By the end of 1991, it was conducting 11 peacekeeping operations at an annual cost of $615 million. In three years, the numbers rose to 18 operations and $3.3 billion — with Australian taxpayers paying 1.5% of the bill.

Have the results justified the steel cost? Consider the UN's top four peacekeeping missions:

Bosnia In June 1991, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and was recognised by the UN. The Serbian-dominated Yugoslav army invaded Croatia, ostensibly to protect its Serbian minority. After the Serbs agreed to a cease-fire, the UN sent in a 14,000-member UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) to build a new nation. (The mission has since mushroomed to over 40,000 personnel, becoming the most extensive and expensive peacekeeping operation ever.)

After neighbouring Bosnia declared its independence in March 1992, the Serbs launched a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against the Muslims and Croats who made up 61% of the population. Rapidly the Serbs gained control of two-thirds of Bosnia, which they still hold.

Bosnian Serbs swept into Muslim and Croat villages and engaged in Europe's worst atrocities since the Nazi Holocaust. Serbian thugs raped at least 20,000 women and girls. In barbed-wire camps, men, women and children were tortured and starved to death. Girls as young as six were raped while parents were forced to watch. In one case, three Muslim girls were chained to a fence, raped by Serb soldiers for three days, then drenched with petrol and set on fire.

While this was happening, the UNPROFOR troops stood by and did nothing to help. Designated military "observers" counted artillery shells — and the dead.

Meanwhile, evidence emerged that there was a serious corruption problem. Accounting procedures were so loose that the UN overpaid $2.3 million on a $28-million fuel contract. Kenyan peacekeepers stole 95,000 litres of fuel and sold it to the Serbs.

Corruption charges were routinely dismissed as unimportant by UN officials. Sylvana Foa, then spokesperson for the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, said it was no surprise that "out of 14,000 pimply 18-year-olds, a bunch of them should get up to hanky-panky" like blackmarket dealings and visiting brothels.

When reports persisted, the UN finally investigated. In November 1993 a special commission confirmed that some terrible but "limited" misdeeds had occurred. Four Kenyan and 19 Ukrainian soldiers were dismissed from the UN force.

The commission found no wrongdoing at Sonja's Kon-Tiki, but its report, locked up at UN headquarters and never publicly released, is woefully incomplete. The Sonja's Kon-Tiki incidents were not fully investigated, for example, because the Serbs didn't allow UN investigators to visit the site, and the soldiers' daily logbooks had been destroyed.

Meanwhile, Russian troop commanders collaborated with the Serb aggressors. According to UN personnel at the scene, Russian battalion commander Colonel Viktor Loginov and senior officer Colonel Aleksandr Khromchenkov attended lavish feasts hosted by a Serbian warlord called "Arkan," widely regarded as one of the worst perpetrators of atrocities. It was also common knowledge that Russian officers directed that UN tankers unload petrol at Arkan's barracks. During one cease-fire, when Serbian materiel was locked in a UN storage area, a Russian apparently gave the keys to the Serbs, who removed 51 tanks. Eventually, Khromchenkov was repatriated. Loginov, after finishing his tour of duty, joined Arkan's Serbian forces.

Problems remained, however, under the leadership of another Russian commander, Major General Aleksandr Perelyakin. Belgian troops had been blocking the movement of Serb troops across a bridge in northeastern Croatia, as required by UN Security Council resolutions. Perelyakin ordered the Belgians to stand aside. Reluctantly they did so, permitting one of the largest movements of Serbian troops and equipment into the region since the 1991 cease-fire. According to internal UN reports, the UN spent eight months quietly trying to pressure Moscow to pull Perelyakin back, but the Russians refused. The UN finally dismissed him last April.

Cambodia In 1991, the China and the Soviet Union helped broker a peace treaty among three Cambodian guerrilla factions and the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government, ending 21 years of civil war. To ease the transition to Cambodia's first democratic government; the UN created the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, called UNTAC. In less than two years, about 20,000 UN peacekeepers and other personnel were dispatched at a cost of $2.4 billion.

Some of the Cambodian "peacekeepers" proved to be unwelcome guests — especially a Bulgarian battalion dubbed the "Vulgarians." In northwest Cambodia, three Bulgarian soldiers were killed for "meddling" with local girls. One Bulgarian was treated for 17 different STDs. The troops' frequent carousing once sparked a mortar-rifle battle with Cambodian soldiers at a brothel.

The Bulgarians were not the sole miscreants in Cambodia, as internal UN audits later showed. Requests from Phnom Penh included 6500 flak jackets — and 300,000 condoms. In the year after the UN peacekeepers arrived, the number of prostitutes in Phnom Penh more than tripled.

UN mission chief Yasushi Akashi waved off Cambodian complaints with a remark that "18-year-old hot-blooded soldiers" had the right to drink a few beers and chase "young beautiful beings." Akashi did post an order: "Please do not park your UN vans near the nightclubs" (i.e., brothels). At least 150 UN peacekeepers got AIDS in Cambodia; 5000 of the troops came down with STDs. Meanwhile, more than 1000 generators were ordered, at least 330 of which, worth nearly $4 million, were never used for the mission. When UN personnel started spending the $300 million budgeted for "premises and accommodation," rental costs became so inflated that locals could barely afford to live in their own country. Some $102 million was spent buying vehicles, including hundreds of surplus motorcycles and minibuses. When 100 12-seater minibuses were needed, 850 were purchased — an "administrative error," UNTAC explained, that cost $10.6 million.

Despite the excesses, the UN points with pride to the free election that UNTAC sponsored in May 1993. Ninety per cent of Cambodia's 4.7 million voters defied death threats from guerrilla groups and went to the polls.

Unfortunately, the election results have been subverted by the continued rule of the Cambodian People's Party — the Vietnamese-installed communist government, which lost at the ballot box. In addition, the Khmer Rouge — the guerrilla group that butchered over a million countrymen in the 1970s — have refused to disarm and demobilise. So it was predictable that they would repeatedly break the cease-fire and keep up their killing. The UN has spent nearly $2.5 billion, but there is no peace in Cambodia.

Somalia When civil war broke out in this African nation, the resulting anarchy threatened 4.5 million Somalis — over half the population — with severe malnutrition and related diseases. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the first African (and Arab) to hold the position, argued eloquently for a UN peacekeeping mission to ensure safe delivery of food and emergency supplies. The UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) was deployed to Mogadishu, the capital, in September 1992. It was quickly pinned down at the airport by Somali militiamen and was unable to complete its mission.

A U.S. task force deployed in December secured the Mogadishu area, getting supplies to the hungry and ill. After the Americans left, the UN took over in May 1993 with UNOSOM II. The $2.5-million-a-day operation transformed the former U.S. embassy complex into a 32hectare walled city boasting air-conditioned housing and a golf course. When UN officials ventured out of the compound, their "taxis" were helicopters that cost $640,000 a week.

The published commercial rate for Mogadishu — U.S. phone calls was $6.30 a minute, but the "special UN discount rate" was $10.78. Unauthorised personal calls totalled more than $2.5 million, but the UN simply picked up the tab and never asked the callers to pay.

Meanwhile, the peacekeeping effort disintegrated, particularly as warlord Mohammed Aidid harassed UNOSOM II troops. As the civil war continued, Somalis starved. But UN peacekeepers — on a food budget of from South America, beef from Australia and frozen fish from New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Thousands of metres of barbed wire arrived with no barbs; hundreds of light fixtures to illuminate the streets abutting the compound had no sockets for light bulbs. What procurement didn't waste, pilferage often took care of. Peacekeeping vehicles disappeared with regularity. Egyptian UN troops were suspected of largescale black-marketing of minibuses.

But these losses were eclipsed in a single night by a thief who broke into a UN office in Mogadishu and took $5 million in cash. The office door was easy pickings: its lock could be jemmied with a credit card. The money, stored in a filing cabinet, had been easily visible to dozens of UN employees. While the case has not been solved, one administrator was dismissed and two others were disciplined. UNOSOM II itself was later shut down, leaving Somalia to the same clan warfare that existed when UN troops were first deployed two years before.

Rwanda Since achieving independence in 1962, Rwanda has erupted in violence between the majority Hutu tribe and minority Tutsis. The UN had a peacekeeping mission in that nation, but it fled as the Hutus launched a new bloodbath in April 1994. Only 270 UN troops stayed behind, not enough to prevent the butchery of at least 14 local Red Cross workers left exposed by the peacekeepers' swift flight. The UN Security Council dawdled as the dead piled up, a daily horror of shootings, stabbings and machete hackings. The Hutus were finally driven out by a Tutsi rebel army in mid-1994.

Seven UN agencies and more than 100 international relief agencies rushed back. With a budget of some $256 million, the UN tried unsuccessfully to provide security over Hutu refugee camps in Rwanda and aid to camps in neighbouring Zaire.

The relief effort was soon corrupted when the UN let the very murderers who'd massacred half a million people take over the camps. Rather than seeking their arrest and prosecution, the UN made deals with Hutu thugs, who parlayed UN food, drugs and other supplies into millions of dollars on the black market.

Earlier this year the UN began to pull out of the camps. On April 22 at the Kibeho camp in Rwanda, the Tutsi-led military opened fire on Hutu crowds. Some 2000 Hutus were killed. Where was the UN? Overwhelmed by the presence of nearly 2000 Tutsi soldiers, the 200 UN peacekeepers did nothing. A UN spokesman informed Reader's Digest, meekly, that the UN was on the scene after the slaughter for cleanup and body burial.

With peacekeeping operations now costing over $3.8 billion a year, reform is long overdue. Financial accountability can be established only by limiting control by the Secretariat, which routinely withholds information about peacekeeping operations until the last minute — too late for the UN's budgetary committee to exercise oversight. In December 1993, for example, the budget committee was given only one day to approve a $770-million budget that would extend peacekeeping efforts into 1994.

More fundamentally, the UN needs to re-examine its whole peacekeeping approach, for the experiment in nation building has been bloody and full of failure. Lofty ideas to bring peace everywhere in the world have run aground on reality: member states with competing interests in warring territories, the impossibility of lightly armed troops keeping at bay belligerent enemies, and the folly of moving into places without setting achievable goals.

"It has been a fundamental error to put UN peacekeepers in place where there is no peace to keep," says Sam Nunn, a member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee. "We've seen very vividly that the UN is not equipped, organised or financed to intervene and fight wars."

(This article, on the UN's peacekeeping operations; is the first of two reports. )