TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Katyn, Srebrenica, the Congo: The UN and Human Rights

As Wajda’s film on the Katyn massacre opens, we’re reminded of how often human rights have been betrayed explicitly by their defenders.

Victor Zaslavsky’s Class Cleansing: The Massacre at Katyn documents how the U.S. government knew of Soviet culpability but participated in concealing it in order to mollify its wartime ally. George Earle, previously special envoy to the Balkans, prepared a report for Roosevelt, demonstrating that the Russians had carried out the killings: Roosevelt prohibited the publication and, to get Earle out of circulation, reassigned him to American Samoa (see Zaslavsky’s account, p. 61).

In other words, the run-up to the end of the war and the establishment of the UN depended on the suppression of the truth of Katyn.

Fast forward to the Balkan Wars after the collapse of Yugoslavia. At Srebrenica, Dutch troops, acting for the UN, hand over thousands of Bosniaks to certain death at the hands of Serb forces. Recently Hasan Nuhanović, who survived Srebrenica only because he was employed by the UN but who saw his family abandoned to the Serbs, sued in the Netherlands on the grounds that the Dutch had not lived up to their obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights. The stunning verdict of the court: because the Dutch were acting for the UN, they had no obligation to respect human rights:

The court rejects the assertion that after the transfer of the relevant powers of control and command to the United Nations it still needs to be tested whether the State [the Netherlands] complied with its obligations under the human rights treaties, the Genocide Convention and the Red Cross conventions (Geneva conventions). If in the execution of powers which the State no longer has standards are violated, then the point of departure should be that these violations cannot be attributed to the State. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not applicable according to the court because the United Nations are not a contracting party and the citizens of Srebrenica did not come under the jurisdiction of the Netherlands.

In other words: it was just following orders.

With this background, today’s news report is hardly news at all:

The failure to protect the people of Dungu [Congo] and other towns from attack by the Lord’s Resistance Army is a sign of the collapse of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in this sprawling Central African nation.

More than 1,500 civilians have been slaughtered since September, many hacked and clubbed to death in unspeakably brutal attacks, according to humanitarian groups. Aid workers and others say the U.N. force and Congolese military received almost daily alerts as the death toll mounted and the rebel offensives multiplied.

Critics say the 17,000-member U.N. mission has foundered despite being the largest and most expensive in the world—and with the strongest mandate ever issued to U.N. troops to use force to protect civilians.

Can it be that the UN is constitutively unable to protect human rights? That human rights is only a rhetoric for its committees but that it has no enforcement value for any victim? A kind of matter of conscience for a world public that only wants to watch?

Medecins Sans Frontieres holds the U.N. peacekeepers responsible for the hundreds of civilians killed by the Ugandan rebels, blaming the force for not doing more to protect them. And other agencies have joined the outcry.

The U.N. troops “are mere spectators in the massacres of these people whom they should be defending,” Fides, the Catholic missionary news agency, wrote last week.

And the report continues:

A Moroccan peacekeeper told an AP photographer the 240 U.N. troops now have no contact with the people they were sent to protect; they stay in their new camp at an airstrip, a 20-minute drive from town, according to the soldier, who would not give his name because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

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