Mathias Antonsson

Random subjective observations of what's on my mind

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A Twisted State

Hand on heart, when was the last time you screwed up at work? How bad was it? Did it make the newspapers? That’s the reality quite a few people I know operate in. Here’s an example from a few days ago:

UN 1-state

A typo. Sometimes that’s enough to make CNN and Al Jazeera. Look up the definition of “an honest mistake” in the dictionary and this photo could be next to it. The keen of you will have noticed that it’s the @UN account. The very same Twitter account me and my then boss started in 2009 (novelty fact: then called @UNIC). I truly feel for my successor who had this misfortune, as I know better than most how difficult the job is and how meticulous one has to be.

Back when I used to manage it we didn’t have a team, and since news doesn’t take the weekend off it was rather stressful at times. I remember many mornings, especially on Saturdays or Sundays, going through the news from home and reading one tweet 20-30 times before posting it just to make sure it was correct. The Gaza flotilla story in 2010 is a terrific example of how difficult it could be. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had released a press statement with the headline:

“UN human rights chief condemns violent interception of Gaza aid flotilla”

It’s unusually outspoken to be the UN, condemnations aren’t common. Since this was before my morning coffee I must have gone over the tweet and our guidelines in my head at least 50 times before I posted. All of this under time pressure to make sure we carried the story. The combination of a UN official for once actually expressing a point of view and the fact that we posted it early on meant it went banana bonkers. Viral doesn’t begin to cover it. I think we got over 10,000 new followers that day, and this was at a time when we perhaps only had a 100,000 or so followers. It turned out to be a catalyst for the account. After that single tweet we would gain around 5,000-10,000 new followers per week no matter what stories we reported on. It was the catapult to our mature account that live coverage of events was to it in its wee beginnings.

Social Media is an unforgiving business. Can you imagine making a mistake and then instantly showcasing it to over a million people? Yet, you have to be creative and push the envelope to attract attention and spread your word. It is therefore exceptionally important that the business environment you are in is aware of the fact that mistakes will happen. And that it is forgiving when it inevitably does. Operating under the assumption that the guillotine is behind every typo is a sure way to stifle any creativeness and innovative spirit. This is universal no matter what business you are in. But with Social Media I would argue that being conservative is to the detriment of the business as the account in all likelihood will be counterproductively boring. Bad to good accounts do information, great accounts do infotainment. It carries that twist that makes you want to know more.

I’m sure my successor will emerge stronger from this. She will go over the routine, surely add some new cool tools to her bag of tricks and come back with ignited passion. She can always find solace in that she’s not alone. UN Radio knows how to deliver that aforementioned twist with the best of them:

UN Radio Tweet

Twisted twist

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The End Has No End

As a former UN employee with a passion for peace and a deep rooted political interest I have followed and read much on the issue of UN Peacekeeping. Despite this I have never grasped the topic.

It has nothing to do with the paradox of ensuring peace by sending soldiers, I get that. No, rather it’s the fact that the UN Peacekeepers seems to be leaving or waving the white flag when they are needed the most. Few have covered this better than Roméo Dallaire, who served as Force Commander of UNAMIR, the peacekeeping force stationed in Rwanda during the genocide. He wrote about it in Shake Hands with the Devil, a book you really should(n’t) read.

Blue Helmet

UN Peacekeepers are often referred to as Blue Helmets

Jumping back in time a few decades, as the Suez Crisis ceasefire was declared in 1957, a Canadian diplomat (later Prime Minister) named Pearson suggested the UN station a peacekeeping contingency to ensure the ceasefire was honoured. Pearson later won the Nobel Peace Prize for this, and he is by many considered the father of modern peacekeeping. In 1988 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to UN peacekeeping forces.

(The Norwegians have quite the history of seeming confused when awarding this one haven’t they?)

Taking a short cut on a topic that could easily have an entire library dedicated to it without covering anything but the tip of the proverbial iceberg I’m moving to the 1990’s. Two of the most notable UN failures happened in this decade; the aforementioned Rwandan Genocide in 1994 and the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. This led to some well needed self-examination that ten years later would generate the R2P initiative, which was invoked to enter Qaddafi’s Libya. (Perhaps the first and last time the R2P will be invoked following that outcome?). In 1996, the UNICEF study “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” was released. On page 24 it states:

“In 6 out of 12 country studies on sexual exploitation of children in situations of armed conflict prepared for the present report, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.”

Sexual abuse came to be associated with the UN Peacekeeping forces. An unfortunate fact I experienced firsthand covering the “International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers” in 2010 as our reporting had to be sensitive to this criticism. A Guardian story from 2005 mentions abuses in DRC, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor and Haiti. Wikipedia even has a list of human rights abuses. Speaking of the recently mentioned Haiti, there’s also much to support that the cholera epidemic, which has resulted in 600.000 Haitians getting ill and 7.600 deaths, have been caused by UN Peacekeepers. This is however denied by the UN.

Enough with the non-encompassing and highly selective history lesson already, what’s new you ask? Goma is new. I’ve followed it closely for the past couple of days. I must admit mostly for the reason that I have a friend there and was a bit worried. He’s fine – thank you Facebook.

Goma has been overrun by the M23. The UN has 22,000 peacekeepers in the DRC, out of which 1,500 are in Goma. Today I read this BBC article that I hoped would give some clarity, but instead confused me even further as to the role of the UN peacekeepers. It states that:

“… there was no resistance from the nearly 1,500 UN peacekeepers in the city…”

Why not? What’s the point of having them stationed there then?

“A UN spokesman said its peacekeepers had held their fire as rebels took the city to avoid triggering a battle, putting civilians at risk.”

That’s reasonable, fighting could have proven disastrous for the civilians.

“But the UN has said it has received reports that the rebels have abducted women and children from Goma. Killings and looting have also been reported.”

What? This is contradictory. The UN Security Council voted in favour of a resolution classifying rape as a weapon of war back in 2008 and the Security Council has also condemned the recruitment of child soldiers. They are as such aware of the consequences of doing nothing. The story continues:

“Do you open fire and put civilians at risk or do you hold your fire, continue your patrols, observe what is happening and remind the M23 that they are subject to international humanitarian and human rights law?”

My first reaction is, why are you asking this question now, shouldn’t you have thought about that a wee bit earlier? That’s snarky of me I know, I realize it’s just a pedagogical approach to explain a very complex situation. But I do wonder, what is the point of monitoring abuses, aren’t you supposed to stop them?

“In the resolution, proposed by France, the members of the Security Council strongly condemned the seizure of Goma”

Alright, the Security Council is on top of this one. No conflicting interests this time, but an actual resolution. Now we can intervene?

“French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has described as “absurd” the UN’s failure to intervene in Goma, calling for a change in its mandate.”

So to intervene wasn’t part of the resolution? I am confused again. Also it can’t be classified as a failure unless the mandate called for the UN troops to stop the M23 from overrunning Goma. And if the mandate called for an intervention then why does it need changing?

So what does this mandate actually say? The MONUSCO mandate emphasizes amongst other things “that the protection of civilians must be given priority…” and that: “The Mission would also support Government efforts to fight impunity and ensure the protection of civilians from violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including all forms of sexual and gender-based violence.”

The mandate clearly states that they should protect civilians. The 1,500 strong force found it best to do nothing. None of us can say which action protected the civilian population best. But surely it justifies the question of why they’re there at all if they don’t intervene? It can’t merely be to observe as mentioned above? That does not seem cost-efficient.

I continue digging, but find that the latest MONUSCO press release is from the end of August, their page for press briefings doesn’t contain a single one for 2012. So I turn to the official UN News Centre for enlightenment. There the official UN Spokesperson states:

“Reports indicate that the M23 has wounded civilians, continued abductions of children and women, destroyed and looted property, and intimidated journalists and those who have attempted to resist their control.”

He also notes that MONUSCO is closely monitoring the situation, conducting patrols and that:

“MONUSCO troops will remain actively present in Goma and will continue all efforts within their capabilities to protect civilians from imminent threat.”

Honestly, I am only trying to understand this. Why are the peacekeepers there? What are they allowed to do? If this doesn’t call for an intervention, what does? Is a peacekeeper, a soldier, carrying weapons “actively present” when observing and conducting patrols? Is this the best way “to protect civilians from imminent threats”? And what does “continue all efforts within their capabilities” entail?

I’m a reasonably smart individual with experience of these types of questions and media, and I am not at all interested in appointing blame, but I cannot for the life of me understand anything of this.

This is exactly why the issue of UN Peacekeeping never has made sense to me. If it does to you, please inform me! What are they allowed to do? When? What level of force are they allowed to use to protect civilians? How do you measure the pros and cons of an intervention? If I’m a civilian in Goma how do I know if the peacekeepers will protect me when push comes to shove? How do I make an informed decision for myself, or my family, to wait or to flee? If we can’t answer these basic questions and with the track record of issues surrounding stationed UN Peacekeepers in mind, is it worth it? It’s a simple enough question. To what end?

The UN News Centre piece ends reassuringly though:

“The Secretary-General underlines that those who commit violations will be held responsible for their actions.”