At the middle of the last decade, there were 56 wars being fought around the globe. Among other devastating effects, these conflicts created at least 17 million refugees and left 26 million people homeless. Another 300 million individuals suffered because of disasters not related to war. This state of affairs, following the end of the Cold War and the proclamation of a new world order, indicates serious disarray among the community of nations. And yet, each day dedicated human beings among them international civil servants, government officials, nongovernmental workers, and a broad spectrum of volunteers continue to cope with complex and seemingly intractable problems, in efforts to alleviate suffering and advance the cause of peace.
How did these problems originate and why do they persist? William Shawcross, noted journalist and acclaimed author of such works as Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia and The Quality of Mercy, explores the often harsh realities of this world in his probing and insightful new book Deliver Us from Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict.
Shawcross traveled to Cambodia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, and other trouble spots. Some of the trips were with Kofi Annan, when he was responsible for UN peacekeeping operations and later when he was secretary general. In his impressive overview, the author says he hopes to show in some part, how difficult, if not impossible, their decisions are, faced with the conflicting demands of politicians at home, members of the [UN] Security Council, generals on the ground and the evil which they attempt to face down. And beyond all that there is the question of whether intervention, often demanded for emotional reasons, is necessarily wise. As former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali noted, Everywhere we work, we are struggling against the culture of death. But urgent as the need may be, Shawcross demonstrates that the location and timing of a crisis, as well as the domestic political considerations of Security Council members, often determines what, if any, action is taken. He examines the case of Rwanda in 1994. Definitions were important, he says. Human rights organizations, the pope, and UN officials termed what was happening there genocide. But the leaders of the major nations consistently refused to use the word which, by treaty, would require them to prevent and punish genocide as a crime against humanity. The UN peacekeeping operation there was mandated, but never properly staffed or equipped.
As the author describes specific conditions in the various countries, he poses ethical and moral questions that must be faced. Does the UN Charter actually provide adequate defense against evil? In many ways the story of the last decade is not encouraging. . . . [T]he two warlords who had most successfully tortured their own people and the institutions of the world for the last decade, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosovic, were still in power. Nothing that the international community had been able to do . . . had succeeded in dislodging them. Shawcross believes and this may surprise some readers that the overall story of world peacekeeping is a hopeful one. The crises with which the world has had to deal since the end of the Cold War are not new. Ethnic cleansing happened on a vast scale at the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when there was no international community to do anything about it. Now there is and, with fits and starts, this community is making progress. He is keenly aware that not everything can be achieved. But he counsels that intervention must be consistent; it must be followed through. Roger Bishop is a regular contributor to BookPage.