- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

The United Nations just fired Peter Galbraith, the top American in the U.N. mission in Afghanistan (“U.N. fires Afghan vote monitor,” World, Oct. 1). Mr. Galbraith’s offense: He blew the whistle on the country’s Aug. 20 elections.

Writing to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mr. Galbraith said he was not for or against any candidate but could not overlook the election fraud without compromising the mission’s neutrality. His boss, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, blocked Mr. Galbraith from stopping the fraud and ordered him and other staffers not even to discuss it. Mr. Eide even went so far, Mr. Galbraith said, as telling President Hamid Karzai after the election, “I am biased in your favor.” In an interview with the BBC, Mr. Galbraith said his removal sends “a terrible signal to the world” about the U.N. For many of us, it’s deja vu all over again.

Not so long ago, the State Department named me to run a referendum in Western Sahara, in a U.N. peacekeeping mission called the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). Western Sahara is not Afghanistan, and most people couldn’t find it on a map. The referendum was over whether to allow the Saharawis, the people of Western Sahara, a country the size of Colorado, to decide whether to be independent or part of Morocco, its northern neighbor, which invaded it in 1976.

When I arrived in Western Sahara, the Moroccans still occupied the country and controlled everything, including who among the Saharawis could register to vote. Only Saharawis with Moroccan escorts could approach the registration site. Once the Saharawis were registered, those same Moroccan escorts often confiscated their registration certificates, their license to vote. The king of Morocco was running the referendum through a high-ranking thug from the country’s Security Services who resembled Captain Segura in “Our Man in Havana.”

The Moroccans benefited from delaying the referendum because their brutal treatment of the Saharawis would sink them at the polls. Watching the Moroccans terrify the locals was like watching the Mafia work the waterfront. Saharawis would buttonhole us quietly and ask us to keep an eye on them in case the Moroccans “disappeared” them. It was like being back in South Africa, listening to South African blacks during apartheid talking, in the security of the U.S. embassy, about the brutality of the Special Branch.

Morocco stopped the registration for a week over an absurd dispute involving MINURSO’s schedule that cost the United Nations $100,000 a day. Morocco bugged MINURSO’s phones and regularly searched the hotel rooms of U.N. personnel. All U.N. insignias were ordered removed from the U.N. buildings, and the MINURSO director obliged reflexively.

All these things were open and notorious, and toward the end of my assignment, I was reporting simultaneously to the MINURSO mission director and to the thug who resembled Captain Segura. I could not continue in such a mission and left at the end of a year. I sent a note to Kofi Annan, then head of U.N. peacekeeping, outlining what I had seen and offering to brief him. He responded by saying my complaints were “not serious.”

I testified under oath about all this before a House committee the following year, and the New York Times, the Economist and other publications backed up what I said. It didn’t make a difference. The Moroccans prevented the referendum from happening, and efforts to reintroduce it went nowhere.

Mr. Galbraith is much more important than I and working in a more important place. But some things don’t change. The United Nations is still stifling the truth and muzzling those who try to do the right thing.


Former U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea


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