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UN Week – 3/4/13

April 13, 2013

This blog entry is written by members of our blogging community and expresses those experts’ views alone.

John and Douglas Carey, Editors

In this issue: UN “Day” celebrations; Cambodia Tribunal to hear sexual violence cases; an international public servant beyond compare.

             February 15th was World Radio Day at the UN, where a variety of commemorations are held.  In addition, February 20th was World Day for Social Justice. The month of March has a number of celebratory days scheduled at the UN. The 8th will be International Women’s Day, and the 21st will be both the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and World Down Syndrome Day. World Water Day comes on the 22nd, and March 25th will be International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Perhaps the most notable annual celebration at the UN is its observance of the Holocaust, in view of the antipathy felt by some UN members toward Israel.

Cambodia Tribunal to hear sexual violence cases.

On March 1st a senior UN official welcomed the recent decision by Cambodia’s genocide tribunal to annul a previous ruling that would have prevented it from trying crimes of sexual violence committed during the Khmer Rouge regime.

“This ruling provides an opportunity to send a clear message that conflict-related sexual violence is a crime against humanity and that no matter how long it takes perpetrators will be prosecuted and punished,” said the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura.

This latest ruling of the UN-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) will allow acts of sexual violence, namely forced marriage and rape, to be included in its case against three former Khmer Rouge officials who have been charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.

Nearly two million people are thought to have died during the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979. Since then, countless victims have come forward to tell their stories of forced marriage, sexual slavery, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

“The use of forced marriage in particular was systematic and wide-spread, employed by the regime to secure loyalty to the Government by breaking family bonds and taking a major life decision, who to marry, out of the hands of citizens and entrusting it to the State,” Ms. Bangura said.

“By not including forced marriage in the current case, the court ignores the pain and suffering of all these victims. The brave women who have stepped out of the shadow of shame and stigma represent just a fraction of the thousands of cases of sexual brutality that took place during this time.”

Ms. Bangura stressed that the ruling sends a message to victims that they have not been forgotten and that they will receive justice, and called on the court to give their cases the attention they deserve. “Those who suffered under the Khmer Rouge should not be victimized again by having their cries for justice ignored,” she added.

The ECCC is an independent court set up under an agreement signed in 2003 by the UN and the Government, and uses a mixture of Cambodian staff and judges and foreign personnel.

As the UN Human Rights Council began its 22nd session, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, noted that, while many instances of human rights violations have been referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC), that can happen only if the country where the violations allegedly took place is among the 122 States Parties of the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, or if the case is referred to it by the Security Council, neither of which has occurred as to Syria. Council references have occurred regarding Darfur in 2008 and Libya in 2011. Since September 2012 the High Commissioner has repeatedly called on the Council to refer Syria to the ICC.

An international public servant beyond compare.

Sir Brian Urquhart, who celebrated his 94th birthday in February, is a living chronicle of a large chunk of 20th century history.

Throughout his four decades of service to the United Nations, starting as one of its very first staff members and ending as an Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs, he also helped shape history-making moments. He was present for the birth of the United Nations in 1945, and was witness to many of the Organization’s – and the world’s – seminal milestones.

All of these easily amount to a front-row seat on history. But Sir Brian’s links to history go even further. As a youth, his experiences include attending a lecture given by Indian independence leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi while in primary school and taking part in the coronation of King George VI.

As a soldier in World War II, he was involved in the surrender of German scientists working in nuclear research; he was one of the first Allied troops to liberate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; and he even helped Danish author Karen Blixen, of ‘Out of Africa’ fame, out of a predicament at the end of the war. To top it off, his role in ‘Operation Market Garden’ – one of the most well-known military actions of the later stages of the war – was immortalized in an epic film.

I think I’d like to be remembered as an exemplary international civil servant – if there is such a thing. No, take out exemplary. As a good international civil servant, because I think it’s very important.

As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a tribute message on the occasion of Sir Brian’s 90th birthday four years ago, “You have had an enormous influence on every Secretary-General. Even today, staffers everywhere seek to live up to your example. And you remain one of our wisest and staunchest advocates.”

The then-Belgian Congo became an independent state on 30 June 1960, under the name of Republic of the Congo. Post-independence chaos, including an attempt at secession by the mineral-rich province of Katanga, led to a request for UN intervention, which the Security Council authorized over 13-14 July 1960.

Service in the Republic of the Congo was a hazardous assignment for UN staff. During the life of the United Nations Operation in the Congo (ONUC), there were 250 civilian and military fatalities.

Sir Brian’s first service in the African country was in 1960 as an assistant to Ralph Bunche, who was then serving as the Secretary-General’s Special Representative in the Congo. Ireland’s Conor Cruise O’Brien was then serving as the UN Representative in Katanga, but eventually left, partly due to threats against his life. In late 1961, Sir Brian replaced Mr. Cruise O’Brien in the sensitive position in the secessionist province.

Soon after his arrival in Elizabethville, as the capital of Katanga province was then known, Sir Brian was kidnapped and beaten by disaffected Katangese troops, coming close to being killed.

Thousands of soldiers from more than ten countries served with the UN Force in the Republic of the Congo, helping to restore order and calm in the country in relation to the breakaway province of Katanga.

In the wake of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s departure from the post of UN Representative in Katanga, Sir Brian said that it was a job that no one in their right mind would have wanted. Yet he took it.

Sir Brian explained that there wasn’t any way that he wouldn’t take it, that he was asked to take it by Ralph Bunche, who was his boss and in whom he had enormous confidence. He said we were in a hopeless mess at that time. The morale of that whole force had completely gone to bits. And we’d had to take Conor Cruise O’Brien out because he was in physical danger of being seriously damaged – and there wasn’t any way that you could say no. I wouldn’t have dreamt of saying no. I got kidnapped the second night I was there, actually, which was unfortunate.

Sir Brian said that being kidnapped made him anxious to get back and try to fix the situation. He said he was lucky because the colonel of the Gurkhas [serving as UN peacekeepers], S.S. Maitra, who was his great friend, was a fantastic soldier. The Gurkhas had this unbelievable reputation in Katanga. They were supposed to be able to cut people’s limbs off in mid-air with their kukris [a machete-like knife used by the Gurkhas], but they were wonderful soldiers. So he said he really survived by saying they could kill him – but the Gurkhas would come and avenge his death Sir Brian added that, since nobody had the foggiest idea where he was, it wasn’t true, but nonetheless it worked. And he thinks it’s what saved him.

As a result of the fighting and general unrest in the Republic of Congo’s Katanga province, tens of thousands of people sought shelter and assistance from UN peacekeepers until they were able to return to their homes.

Throughout the first decades of the UN’s existence, Sir Brian worked very closely with Ralph Bunche, an academic who had been active in the US civil rights movement and had been working in the US State Department when Secretary-General Trygve Lie had him come to the UN to oversee the Department of Trusteeship. He was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation work in the Middle East. The two colleagues, Bunche and Urquhart, became close friends over the years. In addition to penning a biography of the UN’s second Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld, Sir Brian also wrote a biography of Mr. Bunche.

Sir Brian said he first met Ralph Bunche when he got into the UN Preparatory Commission in London in 1945. Sir Brian was still in uniform because he didn’t have any civilian clothes. He and his wife took Bunche to the London Zoo on a Sunday because Bunche had nothing else to do. Sturdy friendships can start inauspiciously but blossom mightily thereafter.

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