Book Review

We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn't Always Come Out When the UN Goes in by Linda Polman

We Did Nothing: Why the Truth Doesn't Always Come Out When the UN Goes in by Linda Polman

I'd have to say that this is a must-read. The UN are, consistantly, evoked as some kind of liberal White (sic) Knight in this bad, bad world. Even those concerned by America's recent (ahem) robustness have held up the UN as the route to a better future (witness, in the UK, the difference in public opinion over supporting the invasion of Iraq with/without "UN approval"). Polman clearly punctures the ridiculous fallacy that "the UN" is something somehow separate from its members, specifically the permanent Five (the US, UK, France, Russia and China - the WWII victors plus Beijing). A favourite activity (and she singles out ex-US President Bill Clinton as the master of this) is to blame the UN for taking on a peace-keeping mission (e.g. in Somalia) that one of the permanent members has decided upon and then refused to back properly (with kit, soldier and/or funding). As Boutros-Ghali says, quoted by Polman, after hearing Clinton say, "the UN should learn to say No": "It is not the UN that says Yes or No to anything. It is the Member States." And the Member States vote for political reasons, and most usually the way the Five tell them to.

Polman's mixture of (absurdist) frontline anecdotes (M.A.S.H. meets the reality of Mogadishu) and press reports (from AP, Reuters, de Volkskrant) is well done (if sometimes a little repetitive) and her thesis is compellingly hammered home. The UN costs per annum what Americans spend at the florists each year - and the Five who direct it have the cheek to blame it for failed missions that they impose on an organisation that they perenially underfund. The racism involved in all this will be apparent to anyone who has ever watched the TV news: Blue Helmets, in dangerous situations, are almost always Black/Asian soldiers (often from Pakistan, India, West African countries): "in Kuwait, for example, British soldiers clear mines with British detectors while detectorless Bangledeshis do the same job by prodding the ground with sticks." Third World soldiers do all the UN's dirty work - and understandably: for poor countries their soldiers have become an income generating export product.

"The West is providing the canons, the Third World the fodder." And whilst Black soldiers die in failed missions, predominantly Western privateers and profiteers follow the UN around providing services (from catering to building work) for the soldiers, their command, and often to the local war chiefs too. Polman follows this circus in, amongst other places (her second chapter is entitled Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and Thirteen Other Disaster Zones), Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda - and the picture is curiously and depressingly the same.

Both a more interesting, humane and incisive writer than Janine di Giovanni, whose Madness Visible traverses similar ground, Polman's account (which the Guardian rather hyped as "one of the most affecting pieces of writing about man's inhumanity this side of Primo Levi") of the stupidity, desperate failure and deep-seated mendacity of "peacekeeping" missions, and the UN itself, should be read as widely as possible. A peaceful world is not likely to arise because of an all-powerful UN, but it is absolutely certainly not going to come about via an institution that is never allowed to stand on its own feet and apart from the countries who half-fund and wholly-hamstring it.

-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 19/09/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0141012900
ISBN-13: 9780141012902
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication Date: 05/02/2004
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 256

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