Each of these tales and others in the book reflects an organization beset by corruption and incompetence, that appears incapable of performing its most basic mission: preserving peace. Book Review: Desperate Measures to Overcome U.N. Failure

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures
By Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson
Miramax Books, 2004, 308 pages

A new book by three experienced United Nations staffers provides an unusual and candid look at the incompetence and corruption that has plagued the organization’s peacekeeping efforts over the last twelve years.

Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures is co-authored by three veterans of U.N. operations: Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson.

The powerfully written book chiefly describes their individual journeys from their first days with the U.N. to the present. The book is a searingly open and honest account of their lives and the evolution of their views and values as they travel from one foreign mission to the next. The authors, individually and as a group, come to the U.N. full of idealism, believing that they can promote peace, advance democracy and make a difference for large populations of people through the world body’s work.

Each is committed, dedicated and hard-working. But as their journey continues, each becomes increasingly disenchanted with the U.N. and acutely aware of its failings. They experience firsthand that, in most cases, U.N. efforts to keep the peace or promote democracy fail, either by incompetence or cowardice, and that these failures often result in thousands of deaths.

There is little question that each of the three authors is motivated by an admirable desire to do good, and that each succeeds in their individual pursuits. But the graphic stories of their experiences in Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Bosnia are wrenching.

In Somalia, Cain is caught in a Somali attack on a U.N. ceremony celebrating the U.N.-sponsored reopening of the Somali courts. Unfortunately, during the attack, many of the judges are killed or driven off, and Cain learns that his U.N. boss pushed for the provocative reopening of the courts so that he could collect 15 percent of the judges’ salaries for himself.

Stories like those permeate the authors’ U.N. experiences. In another episode, Cain relates that while in Rwanda, the chief administrative officer (CAO) of the U.N. mission is replaced for requiring a 15 percent kickback on everything the U.N. purchased. However, when the replacement CAO arrives, he quickly institutes the same kickback requirement.

In Haiti, Cain recounts how the Aristide government, after being restored to power by U.S. and U.N. intervention, invented election results and announced them with the U.N.’s blessing. Cain "watched all the ballots burn before anyone had counted them; they were still bound in boxes." Nevertheless, Cain’s memo to U.N. headquarters detailing the election fraud was dismissed because he had transmitted it without his boss’s signature.

In Rwanda, Thomson is responsible for the forensic investigation of several mass graves. He vividly describes how many of the perpetrators of the genocide have simply moved across the border into Zaire and have begun working for the unwitting U.N. in refugee camps.

But financial mismanagement and political corruption are merely the tip of the iceberg. Even more horrific stories are commonplace.

In Liberia, the U.N. has refused to deploy its own peacekeeping force and is instead relying on peacekeeping troops from nearby nations, notably Nigeria and Ghana, under U.N. supervision. Cain describes how Nigerian troops begin "seducing" young girls from a nearby refugee camp with rice and money. After a time, a Ghanaian contingent moves in nearby. The Ghanaians are "more gentle and generous with the girls… So the girls started frequenting the Ghanaian camp more than the Nigerian. One day dead little girls started appearing on the path from the displaced persons camp to the Ghanaian camp — but not on the path to the Nigerians… In the opinion of the investigating officer, this was a message to the girls from the Nigerians that it wouldn’t be worth it to frequent the Ghanaians for the sake of a little extra rice. And these are the peacekeepers."

Cain, Thomas, and Postlewait save their most severe criticism for the U.N.’s cowardice in preventing genocide and humanitarian disaster before it occurs. In Rwanda, where 800,000 were killed, the U.N. had a peacekeeping force of 2,500 troops in place before the genocide began. The U.N. ground commander, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, "sent a fax detailing the imminent genocide" to U.N. headquarters. "Kofi Annan, [then] head of U.N. Peacekeeping, ordered him to stand down and do nothing." Ultimately, the general and his force were withdrawn, but the authors (and many others) believe this relatively small but well-armed force could have halted the genocide before it began. The authors present similar stories about Haiti, Bosnia and Liberia.

Each of these tales and others in the book reflects an organization beset by corruption and incompetence, that appears incapable of performing its most basic mission: preserving peace.

It is clear by the end of the book that the authors understand this, too. Cain, disenchanted, has left the U.N. for a foreign policy think tank. Despite the world body’s systemic problems, the other two authors remain with the U.N. And this, perhaps, reflects the dedication and good-heartedness of the authors better than anything else. They recognize that the U.N. will almost never succeed in its missions, but lacking any alternative, Thomson and Postlewait use it as a means to an end — a chance to get into the field, help people and make a difference.

Perhaps that is the important point of all: the U.N.’s utter failure in nearly all that it has attempted — not to mention its little success, in spite of itself — has confirmed what many have long understood. There are no massive, utopian solutions, certainly not in the hands of a dysfunctional bureaucratic institution that cannot even manage itself. The only way to really make a difference is one person at a time.

June 23, 2004
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