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War & Peace: A Perspective from the Field

By John Wiater ’75

John Wiater '75Sitting in Prishtina as a member of the United Nations’ peace-keeping mission in Kosovo, following events in Iraq on satellite TV or on the Internet (power outages permitting), I’m struck by the apparent public perception of the United Nations’ inability or unwillingness to act decisively in the cause of peace. People are overlooking the very real presence of U.N. programs, worldwide, in support of peace, reconciliation, nation-building, the defense of human rights, humanitarian assistance and economic development.

The operations of the United Nations go well beyond the halls of the General Secretariat and the Security Council in New York. The organization operates around the world through an array of funds, programs and specialized agencies, as well as peacekeeping and peace-building operations. UNICEF, The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) are among the most widely known. For over 25 years, I have had the honor and privilege to work in close cooperation with all of them in 10 countries of Latin America and Africa. Within those four agencies, one would be hard-pressed to find more drive, determination and commitment to the cause of peace, justice, humanitarian response and development.

For five years I directed Catholic Relief Services’ (CRS) relief and development program in Ethiopia, in the midst of the final years of armed conflict in that country. CRS’s program was not only the largest non-U.N. effort in that country, but it also operated in the most war-torn provinces of Eritrea, Tigray, Wollo and Harargue. Hundreds of thousands of tons of food and non-food aid were distributed by CRS to over 800,000 famine and war victims, non-stop, during those years. We were even called upon to lead cross-battle-lines relief operations in two northern provinces. Such a complex and massive program would not have been possible without the humanitarian aid coordination of the United Nations, under the leadership of a special representative of the secretary-general. The U.N. didn’t take over the show but did everything necessary to keep the many wheels of a nationwide relief operation adequately greased. U.N. leadership kept all willing and able providers of assistance engaged, regardless of their size. It fostered (sometimes coerced) cooperation among institutions. It provided complex operational backstopping (port monitoring, a massive truck transport operation and air cargo operations). Most importantly, it provided political support before government authorities, giving us the breathing room to concentrate on what we did best—getting assistance deep into the hinterland.

In Guatemala, the United Nations facilitated peace negotiations between the government and the Guatemalan rebel alliance, URNG. Once a comprehensive peace agreement was signed and sealed, the U.N. set up a Verification Mission, MINUGUA, which was mandated with the task of both monitoring compliance with the terms of the agreement and with providing technical assistance and financing for institutional strengthening programs designed to enable the government to comply with those terms—which were established to eliminate the root causes of the conflict. My direct association with the United Nations involved the latter mandate as liaison officer for the Trust Fund for the Peace Process. Over $17 million passed through the fund in support of over 60 institutional strengthening projects in the areas of justice, public security, indigenous rights and economic reforms. Perhaps most importantly, MINUGUA served as a “conscience” for society. It protected an environment that was conducive for nurturing a fragile peace process threatened by generations of prejudice and discrimination.

The United Nations role in Kosovo since 1999 has evolved rapidly, from one of administering an orphaned embryonic state, to one of establishing a Joint Interim Administration to our present one of guiding and mentoring Provisional Institutions of Self-Government, pending a political agreement on Kosovo’s definitive status (vis-à-vis Serbia). Here, the United Nations is coordinating many of the same types of institutional strengthening actions as the ones I was associated with in Guatemala but magnified many fold in scale and scope. Simply put, we are coordinating the world’s efforts to set up the workings of a state, virtually from scratch. It is worth noting that similar actions were taken in East Timor, but not with nearly the political complexities associated with over 700 years of Serbian-Albanian cultural tensions pushing and pulling all manner of decision-making.

These days, it seems as if it is the role of the United Nations to undertake impossible (or nearly impossible) missions. For the men and women of the organization, it can be dangerous—hundreds have died in the course of service. More often than not, our “plum posts” are the pits. The amazing thing is that there are thousands of dedicated professionals and technicians ready and willing to blanket the globe in pursuit of the U.N.’s noble purpose, as outlined in the organization’s charter. The motivation is compelling, the will strong and the experience enriching.

So as we watch coverage from Washington, London, Paris, Baghdad and New York, let’s keep in mind that the United Nations’ “rubber hits the road” in the field—often far removed from cameras, reporters and commentators.

John Wiater ’75 writes to us from his new post with the U.N. Mission in Kosovo. A native of New Britain, Conn., he holds a master’s degree in Latin American Studies from The Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. From 1977 through 1996, he worked for Catholic Relief Services in Colombia, Peru, Paraguay, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Guatemala. He is currently the external assistance and programme coordinator, assigned to the Ministry of Public Services at the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). He and his wife, Luz Stella Siabatto, have two daughters, Michelle and Vanessa.


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