‘Wrenching Questions’ Remain a Year After UN Baghdad Bombing

GENEVA – The bomb attack on the United Nations offices in Baghdad a year ago Thursday posed "wrenching, fundamental questions" for the world body with respect to security, to which answers have not yet been found.

Speaking on the first anniversary of the suicide bombing of the Canal Hotel, where the UN had its offices in the Iraqi capital, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked "How do we improve security without unduly encumbering our work and effectiveness?"

"Our work is with people. We must be able to get to them, and they must be able to get to us," he underlined.

The families of the 22 UN officials killed in the suicide bombing are still waiting for answers as to who carried out the attack. But the investigation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has not come up with results.

On several occasions, Annan has demanded explanations from the United States, which led the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and heads the occupation forces. But there are no new elements to share with the families, said Marie Heuzé, the Director of the UN Information Service in Geneva.

The UN paid homage to the victims in New York, Amman, and Geneva Thursday. The UN officials killed a year ago included the head of the world body’s mission to Iraq, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Vieira de Mello, a Brazilian diplomat.

In his speech in the main ceremony, held at UN headquarters in Geneva with the presence of the families of victims and survivors of the attack, Annan said the bombing showed the UN and its staff that we "may have become in ourselves one of the main targets of political violence."

In the nearly 60 years since the UN was created, it has lost hundreds of staff members. Even after the Aug. 19, 2003 blast, 17 peacekeeping troops and civilian officials have been killed in Iraq.

However, the organization returned to Baghdad last week with a small group of officials, headed by Pakistani diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi as Annan’s special representative for Iraq – the same post that Vieira de Mello held at the time of his death.

Most of the activities of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) are carried out in the UN offices in Larnaca, Cyprus, Amman, Jordan, and Kuwait.

The UN humanitarian agencies conduct their activities by means of Iraqi staff, with only sporadic, discreet visits to Iraq by their officials.

The Red Cross operates in a similar manner in its work providing assistance to the victims of the war and on its visits to the prisons where abuses against Iraqi detainees have been documented.

The new UN mission to Iraq will have the same mandate, based on UN Security Council resolution 1483, that was held by the mission headed by Vieira de Mello.

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the attack, several sources have revealed Vieira de Mello’s criticism of the UN mandate and of the U.S.-led war on Iraq.

Annick Stevenson, spokeswoman for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Vieira de Mello himself, who was sent to Baghdad in May 2003, referred to "the particularly ‘hazy and ambiguous’ nature of the mandate outlined in Security Council resolution 1483."

A week ago, that mandate was extended for one year.

Stevenson’s statement appears in a book that she co-authored with George Gordon-Lennox, a retired UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees official and an activist with Reporters Without Borders.

The book, Sergio Vieira de Mello: An Exceptional Man, was launched this week in Geneva in French and English, by Editions du Tricorne.

The authors say that, "On several occasions, including during a meeting in the White House with President George W. Bush in March 2003, he never hesitated to remind the United States of their obligations" to uphold and respect the law in the "war on terrorism."

"All the arguments and justifications in the world can never make me accept the idea of a legal black hole in Guantanamo Bay," the Brazilian diplomat said later, referring to the detainees held without legal status or charges in the prison in the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba.

The book also states that Vieira de Mello did not want to go to Iraq, did not support the presence of occupying troops in that country and did not feel the war was justified.

"Sergio was profoundly shocked by and had a visceral reaction to seeing foreign soldiers on the streets of Baghdad. He tried to imagine how he would feel if he saw the same scene on the streets of his hometown, Rio," said Jonathan Prentice, Vieira de Mello’s executive assistant, who was quoted by the authors.

Annan himself, in his address to the ceremony commemorating the victims, referred to the conflict as "a war that I genuinely thought could have been avoided."