In somber gatherings on three continents, United Nations employees remembered 22 slain colleagues Thursday, a year after a truck bomb shattered U.N. offices in Baghdad. It was an attack that “brought us face to face with danger in a new and more intimidating form,” Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.
As Annan spoke in Geneva, U.N. officials in New York and Amman, Jordan, held simultaneous observances recalling the bombing last Aug. 19 that many U.N. employees call “our Sept. 11” and that brought a fundamental shift in U.N. operations.
“We are no strangers to violence and intimidation,” Annan said. “But the attack on the Canal Hotel was a unique blow for us as an organization.”
The bombing, which killed the top U.N. envoy to Baghdad, Sergio Vieira de Mello, forced the world body to realize it is considered an enemy by some. The United Nations also has had to rethink its security procedures, although the U.N. Staff Union charges Annan hasn’t done enough.
“How do we operate in places like Iraq and some parts of Afghanistan” where some people “are determined to block our work at any price?” said Annan, who met privately on Wednesday with families of the victims and U.N. workers who survived the blast.
‘Wrestling with wrenching, fundamental questions’ “We are now wrestling with wrenching, fundamental questions,” he said. “How do we improve security without unduly impeding our work and effectiveness? Our work is with people. We must be able to get to them, and they must be able to get to us,” he said.
The Staff Union contends U.N. workers are still being put in danger. Annan has said the United Nations remains “a high-value, high-impact target for attack in Iraq,” but the body has re-established a formal presence in Iraq with the arrival last week of Annan’s new envoy, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi.
A U.N.-appointed investigative panel chaired by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari cited massive security failures before the Aug. 19 attack. It criticized the United Nations for shunning protection from U.S.-led coalition forces — then the only source of security in Iraq — and for ignoring “credible information on imminent bomb attacks in the area.”
It also accused the United Nations of violating its own security rules and called the security management system “dysfunctional.”
Ahtisaari called for the United Nations to address the issue of accountability. In March, Annan fired one senior U.N. official, demoted another and charged two low-level officials in Baghdad with misconduct in connection with the security lapses.
Annan also wrote to the heads of all U.N. agencies, reprimanding them for disobeying security warnings.
Deputy secretary-general chastised
He chastised but did not fire Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette, who was chair of the steering group on Iraq that gave the OK for the U.N. return to Baghdad after war broke out.
The U.N. Staff Union, which will hold its own commemoration in New York, criticized that decision. It expressed dismay that the United Nations “is sending staff into insecure environments without having made the prerequisite security arrangements necessary to ensure their security and safety prior to deployment.”
How much has changed? After the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Annan asked Vieira de Mello to take a leave of absence from his post as U.N. human rights chief to accept a four-month assignment as his Baghdad envoy.
Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian, had won wide respect for diplomatic skills honed during 34 years as a U.N. troubleshooter who brought peace the world’s most dangerous hot spots — including Mozambique, Cambodia, Bosnia and East Timor.
Privately, Vieira de Mello had mixed feelings about the U.N. mission in Iraq, then under the control of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, said Annick Stevenson, a longtime colleague.
‘He knew what he had to do there’
“But he knew what he had to do there — just listen to the Iraqis and give them a helping hand,” she said.
A week after the attack, Annan said the United Nations should respect Vieira de Mello’s dying wish: “Don’t let them pull the mission out,” the 55-year-old diplomat told rescuers battling to free him from the shattered building.
But in October, Annan ordered U.N. international staff to quit Iraq after a second attack on the U.N. building and a blast at the Baghdad offices of the international Red Cross.
Now, Qazi is back with a small delegation. His primary task is to help Iraq’s interim government that took over sovereignty from the coalition in June to prepare for elections.
The U.N. mission’s main base will remain in Amman, Jordan, until security improves, leaving local Iraqi staff in charge of humanitarian programs. And Qazi’s team will be protected by the U.S.-led multinational force — an arrangement the United Nations had refused the first time around.