Commentary Magazine


Lord Hannay’s Defense

Last week I gave a lecture at the London School of Economics titled “What’s Wrong with the United Nations?” I was honored by the presence of Lord David Hannay, who served in the early 1990’s as the UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Lord Hannay is a smart and sophisticated man, and a friendly conversationalist. He also personifies the mindset of the UN.

In 2004, Kofi Annan, in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal and the Iraq war debate, undertook one of the UN’s most far-reaching reform initiatives by appointing a High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change. Lord Hannay was one of the panel’s few Western members. He and I had met once before, at a conference to evaluate the panel’s report. Where I was critical of the UN, Lord Hannay voiced the argument that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its member states and is used as a whipping boy by thoughtless critics.

This time, at a dinner following my talk, Lord Hannay took issue with an attack (similar to what I wrote in this recent post) I had made on the UN’s Human Rights Council. Hannay said that the Council’s singular chastisement of Israel was understandable in light of Israel’s use of cluster bombs in Lebanon last summer.

Never mind that Israel’s actions in Lebanon were in response to a deadly attack on its territory and soldiers by a military force sworn to its destruction. Are Israel’s abuses, such as they are, more blameworthy than those of, say, Burma, Sudan, North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe, etc.? Is it possible that Lord Hannay believes that they are? More likely, he knows better, but suppresses common sense in order to defend the organization that he cherishes.

This impulse to protect the UN at all costs is just what led the body into its worst moments, and Lord Hannay, as it turns out, was in the thick of that. I refer to the UN’s refusal to lift a finger to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The U.S., under President Clinton, was in the forefront of this disgraceful decision. But Lord Hannay stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States government.

Some UN peacekeepers were present in Rwanda when the slaughter began, and they pleaded for reinforcements. Instead, the opposite happened. As recalled by journalist Linda Melvern: “It was the British ambassador, Lord David Hannay, who first suggested to the council that the peacekeepers be withdrawn, and he had suggested ‘a token force’ to remain behind in Rwanda in order to ‘appease public opinion.’”

So much for Lord Hannay’s credentials on human rights. A decade later, when questioned by CNN about those events, Hannay pleaded ignorance. Reports by UN forces in the field saying that mass murder was imminent were “smothered,” he explained. “The Security Council was never told something appalling was going to happen. We were flying completely blind.”

Perhaps so. But who “smothered” the reports to which Lord Hannay was referring, the ones that were sent to UN headquarters in New York by General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian who commanded UN forces in Rwanda? None other than the Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali; Kofi Annan, then the head of the UN department of peacekeeping; and Annan’s deputy, Iqbal Riza. They did so because they feared that the truth about Rwanda’s imminent genocide would lead UN member states to order actions that might fail and reflect poorly on the UN. Better to let events take their course. In short, Lord Hannay’s self-exoneration gives the lie to his own argument that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its parts.

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