ON Tuesday in Baghdad Sergio Vieira de Mello became only the third senior United Nations official to be killed while on duty since the organisation was founded in 1945. The others were Dag Hammarskjold who in 1961 was Secretary–General when his plane crashed in suspicious circumstances on the borders of Katanga and Zambia in Africa, and Count Folke Bernadotte who in 1948 was serving as UN Mediator in Palestine, seeking to enforce a truce between Arabs and Jews, when he was assassinated by Jewish terrorists from the Stern Gang. Given the dangerous situations in which the UN often has to work it is inevitable that its staff will often be at risk and, in fact, some 250 of them have lost their lives in the past ten years. Yet it is remarkable that more than thirty years have passed since the head of a mission has been killed. Behind this fact lies what has been until this week a universal recognition that the UN acts on behalf of the world community in a completely neutral way. In its peace–keeping role the blue helmets of its armed soldiers are invariably respected even by combatants who may resent their presence. By contrast, in its humanitarian activities, such as those it was carrying out in Iraq, the fact that its officials did not carry arms was always intended to be a reassurance to those it was trying to help. In the immediate aftermath of the Baghdad attack there has been criticism of the state of security at the UN's offices in a former hotel two miles from the city centre but some reports have said that it was the wish of Sergio de Mello that his headquarters should not take on the appearance of an armed camp.
IN considering the future of its humanitarian, economic and nation–building roles the UN may now have to find a new balance between its openess to the people it is helping and the requirements of its own security. That will need careful long–term consideration. In the short term in Iraq the UN is entitled to ask Britain and the United States to do more to ensure that its role is not in any way diminished by Tuesday's attack – if that were to happen it would give a clear victory to the terrorists responsible for the outrage. Indeed, the moment has come for the victors in the war on Iraq to recognise that they are making a poor job of winning the peace. The promises to give the UN a “key role” in the post–war rehabilitation of Iraq should be honoured and serious thought given to the creation of a UN peace–keeping force with clearly defined resposibilities instead of further extension of the ad hoc coalition of some 18 nations currently favoured by Britain and the United States. For its part the UN should insist that its essential humanitarian role in Iraq should be spelt out in a new UN Security Council resolution and provided with the necessary funding. In all this it is essential that the work of the United Nations in Iraq should not be seen as subsidiary in any way to the coalition powers but rather as proof of the international community's determination to correct the mistakes made thus far and to move forward in a new way.


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