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Does the UN know what it’s doing?

By David South

Now Magazine (Toronto, Canada), July 22-28, 1993

The United Nations’ bloody hunt for elusive Mogadishu warlord general Mohamed Farah Aideed has many observers wondering whether the world body is making up the rules as it goes along.

Some critics, such as George Cram of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, an influential umbrella group for Canadian non-governmental organizations of NGOs, question if the obsession with Aideed isn’t just burying the UN in a deeper image problem with the Third World.

Critics point to the fallout of growing resentment from the July 12 attack on Aideed’s compound – killing more than 70 civilians – boding ill for a peaceful reconstruction of Somali society.

The fact that among those killed within the compound were clan elders who were negotiating a peace has upset Somalis even more, says Cram, a Horn of Africa researcher.

“The UN has lost its credibility, its moral authority, lost its blue-beret neutrality,” says Cram bluntly.

The degree to which Aideed should be the main focus of current UN actions has some relief agencies scratching their heads. Aideed has become Somalian bogey man number one with UNOSOM’s (United Nations Operations in Somalia) head, US Admiral Johnathon Howe. He has placed a $25,000 price on Aideed for an arrest.

“I don’t recall the UN ever going out and actually attempting to arrest individuals – they certainly haven’t done it in other conflict zones,” says reverend David Hardy of Saskatoon-based Lutheran Relief, who has organized relief flights into Somalia.

Cambodian example

He cites the example of Cambodia, where the UN brokered a controversial peace with those purveyors of the genocidal killing fields, the Khmer Rouge, in order to secure free elections.

David Isenverg of the Center for Defense Information, a liberal Washington-based think tank, worries that doggedly going after Aideed while ignoring the other factions will paint the UN as siding with one faction over another.

“The protracted effect is to turn the US and UN into partisans to the conflict.”

Hardy believes Aideed, who is adept at seeing which way the wind blows, has inflated his stature as an opponent of the UN as foreign invader.

Then there are other criticisms. Some observers wonder whether the UN is too proud or too blind, or simply oblivious when it comes to seeking advice from the locals it went in to protect.

Even Canada, while supporting the UN’s military effort since Aideed “is obstructing relief supplies,” believes that national reconciliation should be a main focus, says external affairs spokesperson Rodney Moore.

He says Canada continues to urge the UN to move quickly on national reconciliation, bringing together women’s groups, clan elders and other non-warlord groups.

“One of the areas where the UN operation went wrong is the tendency to deal with the ‘superpowers’ of Somalia while ignoring groups like women’s collectives,” says World Visions’ Philip Maher, who has just returned from Somalia.

“Part of the problem is misunderstanding,” Maher says. “The UN hasn’t done a great job of telling Somalis what they are doing.”

Many point to the peaceful north, where the as yet internationally unrecognized Somaliland offers a successful model, combining women’s groups and elders to wrest control.

“Does the UN know what it’s doing?”: Now Magazine, July 1993. This incident was the basis of the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. 

More on this story here: Somali Killings Reveal Ugly Side Of Elite Regiment

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Lamas Against AIDS

By David South

UB Post (Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), November 5, 1997

Manila, Philippines – Since HIV is contracted through sex, the disease has always been a difficult subject for the world’s religious leaders. When there is sex to be discussed, no religion can do it without bringing up morality.

This moral debate about bedroom behaviour has tainted discussion of AIDS in many countries. At the extreme end of the spectrum, some evangelical Christian leaders in the US have painted AIDS as an apocalyptic disinfectant for humanity.

Not surprisingly, this attitude has not helped in educating the faithful that AIDS can happen to anyone and its victims should be treated like any other ill person.

The Philippine conference heard that the standoff between the world’s leaders and public health authorities must stop. Dr Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, pointed to the numerous delegates from the world’s religions and called on others to follow their example.

“In Myanmar, the Myanmar Council of Churches, the YWCA and other community-based organizations have joined hands with local authorities, health workers and Buddhist groups for community-based prevention, care and support programmes,” he told the assembly.

“This is the best practice in action.”

Mongolian delegate Dr Altanchimeg thinks a similar approach could work in this country.

“Now every Mongolian goes to see lamas. It’s a good channel to advocate for AIDS education. In Thailand, lamas are very experienced at this. People believe in lamas.”

Like their colleagues in Thailand and Myanmar, Cambodian lamas have been in the forefront of AIDS education.

Lamas there use festivals and ceremonies to raise the issue.

You Chan, a 30-year-old lama from Tol Sophea Khoun monestary in Phnom Penh, likes to raise the issue delicately, by referring to diseases in Buddha’s time.

“I feel it is difficult to speak about sexual methods with a large audience – I will not speak to sexual methods.

“At first, it was very difficult. People would ask why a monk would say such things. But I tried and tried and the people understood who is helping them.

“My message to Mongolia’s lamas is this: you have a moral responsibility to educate the people about AIDS, that it is happening all around the world and there is no medicine to cure it.

“You have to take care in the name of Buddhism to help people in this world.”

You Chan teaches lamas at 15 temples in Cambodia, who pass the message along to other lamas and congregations.

Update: Interestingly, two decades after this story was written, it seems the other kind of llama’s antibodies can “neutralize a wide range of circulating HIV viruses”. From ScienceDaily: How llamas’ unusual antibodies might help in the fight against HIV/AIDS

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