Nations in a state

16th February 1996 at 00:00
TV 6: UNDER THE BLUE FLAG BBC2, Wednesdays, 12 noon January 17 -- February 7 Study guide, Pounds 3.95.

BBC Education, tel: 0181-746 1111

Laurence Alster sees a sixth-form series analysing the UN

A challenging, four-part series for sixth-formers on the history and current condition of the United Nations, Under the Blue Flag kept its most pointed scene for the very end of the final programme, Power Play. On a fact-finding tour of Rwanda, UN secretary-general Dr Boutros Boutros-Ghali viewed the putrefying remains of hundreds of Tutsi tribespeople butchered by their Hutu enemies.

Asked if the UN could have stopped the massacre, Dr Boutros-Ghali turned to the cameras, grim-faced. "I am horrified that, after the Second World War, we have a second genocide, and I am horrified that we have been unable to contain or prevent this genocide."

Sincerely meant, no doubt, but delivered in the kind of measured tones that too easily confuse remorse with ritual. The contrast with the opening interview of the series could not have been more marked. "If we were gorillas, it would have meant something to the West," reflected a Tutsi woman, some of whose family had been hacked to death. "But no one bothered when it was just black people slaughtering each other."

The reproach gained force from the rest of a programme, The Great Disaster, which graphically illustrated the consequence of the UN's irresolution over Rwanda and, it was implied, indifference.

Ineptitude and selfishness were commonplace. Aid workers told of tons of patently unsuitable foods being dropped by parachute, and of journalists appropriating lorries meant for relief work so as to film soldiers helping refugees. Ordered to stay out of trouble, UN soldiers had earlier ignored dozens of street killings.

Yet The Great Disaster refused to pin the blame entirely on the United Nations, maintaining instead that the world too readily thinks of the organisation as some latter-day Seventh Cavalry, forever poised to gallop in whenever innocence is threatened. Armed intervention invariably invites armed retaliation, the programme concluded The alternatives, the next two programmes showed, had the twin merits of being more far-sighted and, because of this, potentially far less bloody. In Angola, Last Chance for Peace showed how feuding armies are kept apart by men wearing nothing more than blue berets for protection, while the third programme, A Stitch in Time, looked at Bolivia, where community development schemes serve to forestall civic strife.

In Angola, the UN appears in a more heroic light. In a country where 12-year-olds carry machine-guns, unarmed UN officials try to uphold a fragile truce between the former combatants, Unita and the MPLA. The more a tale unfolded of international deceit, manipulation of and indifference towards Angola and its people, the more selflessly heroic these men seemed.

In Bolivia, by contrast, self-interest prevails. Fearful of the consequences of the widening gap between the rural poor and the urban wealthy, the UN sponsors schemes to encourage community self-help projects, many of which are going well.

Less successful are UN efforts to discourage the illegal growth of coca, an ingredient in the making of cocaine.

Bolivian coca-growers, many of them ex-miners for once making a tidy living, have little sympathy with the donor nations. Let the gringos try to destroy our coca plantations, said one spokesman. We'll be ready for these people who pay aid officials 30 times more than a Bolivian factory worker.

And this from an organisation, he might have added, currently strapped for cash. The final programme in the series, Power Play, was suitably acid on this and related issues. Undemocratic in structure and in practice, the UN, the programme suggested, too readily meets the interests of the United States - as in the Gulf War, for example - while vacillating elsewhere.

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