The United Nations Under Fire

The United Nations Under Fire

The United Nations Under Fire

What the foreign papers are saying.
Sept. 10 1999 3:30 AM

The United Nations Under Fire

The role of the United Nations was increasingly called into question yesterday as blood continued to flow in East Timor. The Sydney Morning Herald accused the United Nations Thursday of "total mismanagement" of the East Timor crisis. "The lesson of the conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda and Kosovo is that problems need to be anticipated and prepared for," it said in an editorial. "But again inertia is the name of the game and again tragedy is the outcome." The paper also attacked the Australian government for failing to bring sufficient pressure on Indonesia, and the Age of Melbourne published an article regretting that "decades of 'quiet diplomacy' aimed at building ties with our huge neighbor has been dissipated in just a few days."

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In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post said that the atrocities being committed in East Timor showed the limits of the so-called "new international order." It said Thursday in an editorial: "The pending evacuation of the United Nations compound in Dili only highlights the impotence of the world body in resolving this conflict. Despite French support for military intervention, most countries continue to oppose sending in a peacekeeping force without Indonesian approval." Economic pressure is therefore the only option for the international community to pursue, but even this is opposed by several countries, including Australia and Britain, it said. Fortunately, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund seem to be made of sterner stuff.

In New Zealand, where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, attended by Madeleine Albright but boycotted by Indonesian President B.J. Habibie, is going on, the Press of Christchurch stressed the urgency of bringing peace to East Timor, mainly because "to allow the bloodshed to continue into next week would inflame public opinion against Apec." It said Thursday in an editorial, "One of the region's smallest entities--a crypto State with a tiny population and minimal resources--is grabbing the headlines and the sympathies of the world, sidelining the great issues of trade and commerce on Apec's agenda." The Jakarta Post welcomed a resurgence of nationalism in Indonesia in response to international criticism of its "ineffectual" handling of the East Timor crisis. But, without expressing any sympathy for the plight of the East Timorese, it also warned that "Indonesians must realise that, in this era of globalization, self-isolation and disregard of the accepted universal norms of international conduct can lead to political and economic devastation for the nation."

In Europe, Le Monde of Paris agreed with the Sydney Morning Herald that the disaster in East Timor should have been foreseen, and it also strongly criticized the United Nations. The paper said: "By taking on the organization of the referendum, the U.N. implicitly guaranteed not only the security of the voting operation but also that of the voters in the aftermath of the poll. It has betrayed their trust; it has abandoned them without defence. ... The U.N. comes out of this affair humiliated and discredited." It asked, "Can the U.N. continue for long with this impossible contradiction: being the promoter of the rights of man--and in East Timor of the right to self-determination--without giving itself the means to make them respected? The answer will determine the future of the organization."

Among reports from East Timor, the Sydney Morning Herald led its front page Friday with the murder of at least 14 Roman Catholic priests and nuns and the stabbing of the bishop of Baucau by pro-Jakarta militia gangs. "The savage attacks are the first deliberate violations of the sanctity of the church under Indonesian rule and have robbed the East Timorese of their last refuge," the paper said. In London, the Times ran a front-page eyewitness piece by Marie Colvin from inside the U.N. compound in Dili about the desperation of the East Timorese who know they are about to be abandoned. "Last night, no one slept," she wrote. "Women walked around aimlessly, crying, carrying their babies on their hip. Men huddled. I was stopped every step, women grabbing my arm, men pulling me aside to say: 'Can this be true?' It was a hard question to answer. To say yes, to admit the UN was leaving and I was probably going with them, would be to start a panic. ... To say no would be to deny them time to plan an escape."

The British press was dominated, however, by the confession of Michael Portillo, a former defense secretary and one of the country's most prominent Conservatives, that he had "some homosexual experiences as a young person." Portillo, who is seeking re-election to Parliament and is widely seen as an eventual contender for the party leadership, said he wanted to put an end to untrue rumors about his sex life--one being that he had a homosexual affair with another former Conservative minister--by instead volunteering the truth. He said he has had no homosexual experiences since he was at university and has been faithful to his wife for all their 17 years of marriage. The press widely commended him for his honesty, and the Times said in a leading article that "[h]is frankness in discussing youthful homosexual experiences does him only credit."

Meanwhile, the Mail on Sunday announced earlier this week that it has decided not to go ahead with the serialization of the memoirs of James Hewitt, a lover of Princess Diana, although it has already paid him about $500,000 and has promised him another $500,000. He is suing the paper and vice versa. The paper gave no reason for ditching him except that it didn't like the manuscript, which has already been leaked in other papers. The true reasons for the change of heart seem to be an appeal by Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, and a ferocious campaign against Hewitt by the other tabloids. From what we hear, the book contains more about his exploits as a tank commander in the Gulf War than about his affair with the princess, and it says that "the most satisfying experience" of his life had nothing to do with Diana but was the defeat of Saddam Hussein.