Sunday, February 24, 2013

Moral Palsy at the UN

The United Nations has just turned down a claim for compensation from Haitians killed and sickened by cholera taken to the island by it peacekeepers.

A UN spokesman told the Press the claim was "not receivable."

That is not because the claim is invalid.

The strain of the disease that has killed some 8000 Haitians and afflicted over a half million is a "perfect match" with the one in Nepal from where a contingent of peacekeepers arrived in October 2010. Their encampment allowed untreated waste to flow into a river that people depended on for drinking water. The contagion first hit  downriver from the camp.

The claim is not receivable because those who made the decision suffer from a contagion far worse than cholera: moral paralysis.

It is a disease with a long history within the United Nations.

Back in the 1960s, UN "development experts" working in the Sahel (the semi-arid southern fringe of the Sahara desert), put in deep bore wells without accommodating for the drought cycles endemic to the region. The wells supported a rapid increase in the animal and human populations of the Sahel but when the next long drought hit the whole ecosystem collapsed under their weight. The result was the great Sahelian famine that killed many thousands.

The UN should have rung the alarm bells about what happened and taken responsibility for its role in the disaster but it never did. I discovered what had happened when researching an article about the 1974 UN Conference on "Desertification" (a word coined for the occasion).

The UN's moral paralysis does not kick in only in the case of distant, poor and anonymous people.

In the 1970s, when a UN staff member in Chile "disappeared" along with thousands of others under Augusto Pinochet's brutal regime, UN brass in New York did nothing. It took a campaign by the UN Staff Union to shame Kurt Waldheim into spastic action.

As the editor of the Staff Union paper, I was feeling chuffed up about that until a senior UN official casually told me over a sandwich in the UN Correspondent's Association club room that there were also "disappeared" UN staff members in other countries. Except they weren't really out of sight. In Afghanistan, one was being tortured in prison; the brass in New York knew about that but considered it a "domestic" matter. (It took a continuing campaign by the Staff Union to identify the victims and bring about even the most minimal official action.)

And it is not just career UN staff who are callous. When I asked the politically appointed head of UNICEF about the arsenic-contaminated killer wells the organization had funded in Bangladesh, her response was astonishing. "The wells probably saved lives" she said.

What causes the basic lack of empathy that underlies the moral irresponsibility of UN brass?

I think it is the diplomatic version of the "vast carelessness" of wealthy people that Fitzgerald described in The Great Gatsby. At the top levels of the UN diplomatic immunity translates into impunity. People are too insulated and removed from the suffering of ordinary people to care.   

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