The Politics of Humanitarian Intervention Detailed in New Book by Former UN Aid Chief

Security Council Meeting: The question concerning Haiti.
John Holmes addressing a UN Security Council
meeting on Haiti in 2010 (UN Photo)

March 11, 2013 – A new book from John Holmes, former UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, discusses the politics involved in humanitarian aid and also provides some insights into Ban Ki-moon.

Holmes, who was the UK ambassador to Paris before coming to the UN, served as the top international aid official from 2007-2010, a period that covered the politically charged humanitarian crises resulting from Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the brutal end to Sri Lanka’s civil war.

In ”The Politics of Humanity,” Holmes writes of Ban, that, “In my experience, he was hardworking to a fault, totally honest, absolutely committed to the UN and its role and determined to make a difference where he could. His political instincts were usually sound and his readiness to tell his frequent senior visitors what they did not want to hear much greater than often supposed from the outside.”

“He has his weaker points, of which he is well aware, himself,” Holmes adds in the 400-page book released earlier this month. “He is not charismatic or a great strategic thinker. Like his predecessors he is not in a position to tell the big powers what to do nor to fix their disagreements (of course, they themselves do not really want a strong secretary-general whatever they claim in public.)”

The book’s title reflects the central theme of the often conflicting interaction between politics and humanitarian work Holmes experienced during during his stint, including the Security Council’s unwillingness to put Sri Lanka on its agenda and Ban Ki-moon barring him from speaking to Hamas officials about humanitarian aid delivery.

He calls it “absurd” that Sri Lanka was not on the Security Council’s agenda. “The Russians, Chinese, and others, no doubt with an eye to their freedom to attack their home-grown terrorists, were not prepared to agree that the situation went beyond an internal dispute,” Holmes writes.

He also says he advised Ban not to visit Sri Lanka immediately after the government’s military victory over the Tamil Tigers lest it be seen as tacit support for the government and their tactics, but to no avail. Ban, he writes, “liked being the first international leader on the scene after dramatic events.”

On Gaza, Holmes says he was “unable to talk directly to senior members of Hamas myself since the UN had decided, most unwisely in my view, to adhere to the 2006 ban on such contacts, agreed by the so-called Quartet of the US, EU, Russia and the UN, until Hamas met certain political conditions.”

“The ban should not have excluded humanitarian dialogue, but the sensitivities were considered too great even for that,” he states.

On his final visit to Gaza in 2010, the former British diplomat writes, “I tried again to persuade Ban Ki-moon that during this visit I should meet senior representatives of Hamas, to discuss humanitarian issues with them. This would have been entirely in line with the usual humanitarian policy of talking to anyone about getting aid through, and about their responsibilities under international law.”

Ban wouldn’t budge. “He continued to believe, contrary to the views of many UN officials, that the Quartet had some influence on the peace process … The American under secretary-general for political affairs, Lynn Pascoe, also believed strongly in the boycott of Hamas.”

Gaza and Sri Lanka are just two of the crises discussed in Holmes’ minutely detailed account of his time as the UN’s top humanitarian. Most of the 14 chapters are situation specific and there are sections on Afghanistan, Sudan, Haiti, Mynamar, Darfur, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The “Politics of Humanity” is published by Head of Zeus and is available on Amazon, Kindle edition, $5.99.

Denis Fitzgerald
On Twitter @denisfitz

UN ‘Regret’ Over Serbian War Song Played at UNGA Concert

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Ban Ki-moon and Vuk Jeremic at Monday’s Concert (source: Blic)

Jan. 17, 2013 – The United Nations has expressed regret that a Serbian war song was sung at a concert held in the General Assembly hall on Monday.

The event, commemorating the Julian New Year and Serbia’s presidency of the General Assembly, was attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic, who is Serbia’s former foreign minister.

For the final performance, the Viva Vox choir sung “March on the River Drina,” a patriotic song that recalls a World War 1 battle between Serb and Austro-Hungarian forces on the river Drina, which runs through the Bosnia-Serbia border. The song later became an anthem for ultra-nationalist Serb forces.

A protest letter sent to Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday states that, ”The genocide that occurred in Srebrenica and Zepa, and other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was conducted by Serbian aggressors while blasting this song as they raped, murdered, and ethnically cleansed the non-Serb population.”*

On Thursday, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said: “We are aware that some people were offended by the encore song at the concert held at the General Assembly on Monday and we sincerely regret that people were offended by this song which was not listed in the official program. The Secretary-General was obviously not aware what this song was about or the use that was made of it in the past.”

At the closing of Monday’s performance, Jeremic dedicated the concert to all those who dream of world peace.

A war song seems an unusual tribute to world peace. 

– Denis Fitzgerald

* “The women knew the rapes would begin when ‘Mars na Drinu’ played over the loudspeaker of the main mosque… While ‘Mars na Drinu’ was playing, the women were ordered to strip and soldiers entered the homes, taking away the ones they wanted. The ages of women taken ranged from 12 to 60. Frequently the soldiers would seek out mother and daughter combinations.” source: “Seventh Report on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: Part II” US submission of information to the United Nations Security Council. 1993.

Brahimi Begins Work Telling Ban He’s Humbled and Scared

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Ban Ki-moon and Lakhdar Brahimi meet in Ban’s office in New York on Friday Aug. 24. (credit: UN photo)

Aug. 24, 2012 – Lakhdar Brahimi met with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday telling him that he was “was honored, flattered, humbled and scared” when asked to take on the role of U.N. – Arab League joint special representative for Syria and that he is “still in that frame of mind.”

In a brief press encounter following a photo-opportunity, Ban told him that “you have the full respect and full support of the international community” and that “it is crucially important that the Security Council, the whole United Nations System is supporting your work.”

Whether the Security Council can unite around any proposals that Brahimi puts forward remains to be seen. China and Russia have vetoed three previous efforts to put pressure on Bashar Al-Assad.

Brahimi gave little away in terms of specifics, only saying that the needs of the Syrian people will be put above all others.

“They will be our first masters. We will consider their interests above and before everything else. We will try to help as much as we can. We will not spare any effort,” he said.

Brahimi, who will spend the next week in New York, also met Friday morning with U.N. aid chief Valerie Amos and Jeffrey Feltman, head of political affairs, whose department now has control of the Syria mission, taking over from the department of peacekeeping since the withdrawal of the unarmed observer force from Syria.

Brahimi is meeting with France’s U.N. ambassador, Gerard Araud, later in the afternoon, his spokesman said. France currently preside over the Security Council and have called a ministerial meeting for Aug. 30 to discuss the humanitarian situation in Syria. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said he had asked the foreign ministers from neighboring countries (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey) to attend.

– Denis Fitzgerald