- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

U.N. peacekeeping

The problem with long-term projects in the news business is that the issue in question may lose its relevance by the time the article is finished. But sometimes we get lucky and an issue comes to a head at just the right time.

The special report on U.N. peacekeeping on today’s front page was conceived last fall. I no longer remember exactly what inspired it, only that a senior editor decided it was time that we took a detailed look at the subject. Presumably, his interest was piqued by the proliferation of peacekeeping missions in Africa and elsewhere.

Betsy Pisik, our U.N. bureau chief, was assigned to work on the story whenever she could find time away from her daily responsibilities. But we kept her very busy with other things, and then came the Christmas holidays.

The story had been pretty much forgotten by mid-January when the same senior editor asked us how it was coming. We called Miss Pisik again and urged her to move the project from the back burner to the front.

By that time, however, the U.N. oil-for-food scandal had fired the interest of members of Congress and others, demanding her urgent attention. It is a wretchedly complicated story that requires poring through hundreds of pages of documents and following the proceedings of half a dozen congressional committees.

Nevertheless, Miss Pisik soldiered bravely on, scheduling half a day here and half a day there to work on peacekeeping. Finally, in the past few weeks she felt she had enough material to write an article worthy of being labeled a “special report.”

As luck would have it, the United Nations by then was on the defensive over oil-for-food and looking for ways to burnish its image. Mark Malloch Brown, a personable and media-savvy Briton, had been elevated to the No. 3 job in New York and other changes were being promised.

Crisis in Congo

U.N. disaster-relief coordinator Jan Egeland already had been interviewed by reporters and editors in our offices in early February, presumably as part of the new charm offensive, and had been pleasantly surprised to receive a very respectful hearing.

Perhaps emboldened by Mr. Egeland’s experience, Undersecretary-General Jean-Marie Guehenno, the man in charge of U.N. peacekeeping, volunteered to make himself available for a similar grilling about nine days ago.

Guests are always received graciously at The Washington Times, and Mr. Guehenno was to be treated no differently, but we do try to draw them out on the most controversial issues of the day.

In this case, we were anxious to question Mr. Guehenno about an ugly emerging scandal involving U.N. peacekeepers in Congo, whose purported sex crimes included the rape of children as young as 12.

To his credit, Mr. Guehenno brought it up before we could. He opened the session with a very strong statement, describing the steps he was taking not only to deal with the Congo atrocities but also to investigate staff and troop conduct in 15 other peacekeeping missions.

Another incident the same day that Mr. Guehenno visited us brought to the fore another side of U.N. peacekeeping: Nine Bangladeshi troops attached to the Congo mission were killed in an ambush by members of a tribal militia in the east of the country.

In retrospect, I wish we had included the incident in our story on the Guehenno interview — rather than as a short separate item — balancing the sacrifice of the Bangladeshi soldiers against the atrocities of the others.

But we did follow up with another story the next day, and were able to quote from the Guehenno interview on Wednesday when the Congo peacekeepers re-engaged the same militiamen, killing between 50 and 60 of them.

The incident raised profound questions about the purpose and nature of peacekeeping and, together with the sex scandal, provided a wealth of timely material for our special report.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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