It appears, as of this writing, that Hedi Annabi, the United Nations’ special representative in Haiti, was one of the thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands, killed in Tuesday’s earthquake. A veteran of U.N. peacekeeping, Annabi was no more known to the public than any other U.N. lifer, and could scarcely have borne less resemblance to Sergio Vieira de Mello, the dashing and impossibly handsome U.N. envoy who was killed in a truck bombing in Baghdad in 2003. George Clooney would have played de Mello in the movie; Annabi, an extra-dry and sometimes cryptic Tunisian, was more the Peter Sellers of Being There.
When I knew him, in 2004 and 2005, he served as deputy chief of the peacekeeping department in New York. An important part of his job was cajoling and browbeating reluctant countries into contributing troops to desperate missions often rather casually mandated by the U.N. Security Council. He once told me that in May 2000, after the council had decided to send thousands of troops to keep a band of psychotic killers known as the RUF from toppling the government of Sierra Leone, a delegation of 25 officials from the Clinton administration descended on his office. “And one of them just looked at me and said, ‘What are you going to do about this mess?’” Annabi said. “And I said, ‘Are you coming to tell me how I’m going to fix it with the troops you’re not giving me, or are you coming to help me figure out how to fix it? Because if it’s the first, this is going to be a short meeting.’”
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• Inside Haiti’s Horror: Photos and Tweets • Elizabeth Ferris: Haiti’s Charity Crisis U.N. peacekeeping is the kind of noble, sometimes futile pursuit that provokes a snicker from an awful lot of people—at least in the West, where we pay for it (but rarely supply troops for it). We always seem to be reading about U.N. peacekeepers standing helplessly by as militias in Congo rape and murder civilians. And of course we know what U.N. forces did, or didn’t do, in Rwanda and in Bosnia. The era when a few hundred soldiers in blue helmets—or berets, for that matter—could separate contending national armies in Cyprus or the Golan is long, long gone. The killers who now rule the world’s lawless zones know that if they raise the stakes high enough, the gentlemen from the U.N. will stand down.
• How to Help Haiti • The Daily Beast’s full Haiti coverageActually, that’s not so—neither in Haiti nor elsewhere. In 2000, I spent time with the initial detachment of peacekeepers in Sierra Leone. Soon after I left, several hundred of them were taken hostage by the RUF without a shot being fired—an utter humiliation for the U.N. It was then that the Security Council agreed to send a more heavily armed force with a mandate to fight back. Annabi told me that in May 2001, he had gone up into the forest in the north and told the rebels’ commander, “We’re increasing to 17,500 troops, and we’re going to deploy 4,000 Pakistanis in your heartland, and they mean business.” And the rebels backed off. The following year, Sierra Leone held an election. The U.N. succeeded in disarming and demobilizing the rebel force. And several years later, the peacekeepers were able to leave. Today Sierra Leone is a desperately poor country full of thousands of people whose limbs were lopped off by the RUF—but it is at peace, and, at least by the standards of the neighborhood, democratic.
When he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1999 to 2000, Richard Holbrooke used to tell skeptical congressmen that, for all its faults, U.N. peacekeeping served remote regions where we weren’t about to send troops of our own, and did so relatively cheaply and with little loss of life—above all, of American life. It was, and is, a good bargain. What’s more, as the Sierra Leone saga indicates, the U.N. peacekeeping department, unlike much of the rest of the organization, learns from its mistakes. Military organizations tend to do that, because the consequences of their missteps are so grave, being kidnapped perhaps least among them. Bosnia was the low point, when lightly armed peacekeepers with a mandate to protect a humanitarian mission were exploited and preyed upon by Serbian militias. That shameful experience taught U.N. officials and member states the limits of peacekeeping, and reinforced the need for a more honest assessment of what troops could and could not accomplish.
Of course, peacekeepers still sometimes find themselves overwhelmed, as has been happening in Congo. And quality control is a profound problem. Highly professional soldiers from Canada, Poland, Sweden, and elsewhere once served as the core of missions; now they’re busy in Afghanistan. India and Pakistan still supply well-trained troops, but the same can’t be said of many of the others. Well-publicized incidents of sexual abuse have usually implicated the least disciplined contingents. As the number of soldiers deployed in the field has soared beyond 100,000, officials in New York have scrambled with increasing desperation to field troops, and especially troops with decent training and equipment.
Peacekeepers are, of course, only soldiers; they can not solve the problems which caused them to be summoned in the first place. As Annabi put it to me, “We’re getting much better about putting out the fire; but someone else has to rebuild the house.” He also said that crises need “godfathers,” and nobody was volunteering to play godfather in, say, Congo. And maybe they couldn’t have; places like Congo may be beyond help. Perhaps the same is true of Haiti. A U.S.-led U.N. force entered Haiti in 1994 and restored the deposed president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to power. The force left in 2001, having brought this hapless country a measure of stability. When I visited last, in early 2004, Haiti was more or less at peace, but it was a shambles, with vast mounds of garbage piling up on the streets even around the National Palace. Public despair fed growing urban violence, which in turn forced the Security Council to authorize troops to return.
The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH, as the mission is clumsily known, consists largely of soldiers from Brazil, a country that has previously avoided peacekeeping. And at first the Brazilians refused to shoot at the gangsters who ran Port-au-Prince’s feral slums. But by 2005, they had established outposts in the notorious neighborhood of Cité Soleil, moving through dangerous territory to hunt down and kill the worst predators. Impressed and emboldened by this show of bravery, beleaguered citizens started to come forward with intelligence. In a country without an army, and with a hopelessly corrupt and ineffective police force, the U.N. contingent has served as almost the sole source of public order. It is those 9,000 peacekeepers who are now leading the effort to save Haitians trapped in the rubble.
MINUSTAH is only a Band-Aid, but Hedi would probably have said that the world wasn’t offering anything else. One thing I liked about him—and come to think of it, about quite a few of his colleagues—was that experience had made him ironical, and rather droll, but not cynical. Hedi always sounded as if he were rolling a rock uphill, and he more or less knew that it would roll back downhill again. But then he would just trudge down and start pushing again. Everything was impossible; everything was necessary. That’s the U.N., more or less.
James Traub is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine. He has written extensively about international relations, and has been covering the U.N. for over a decade. He is the author of The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the U.N. in the Era of American World Power. His most recent book is The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Promote Democracy (Just Not The Way George Bush Did).