The bombing of the UN office in Baghdad on August 19 was the largest resistance attack on the Western occupiers since the invasion in March. At least 20 people were killed, including Sergio de Mello, the diplomat heading the UN’s mission in Iraq. In the West the attack was seen as particularly shocking because it was against what most westerners see as a soft target: people who went to help ordinary Iraqis recover from the trauma of war, rather than the military forces that inflicted the trauma. Western politicians describe all attacks on their troops as terrorism, but most observers, even in the West, do differentiate between terrorism and resistance to foreign occupation.
The deaths of de Mello and his colleagues, while tragic for their families and friends, were probably the inevitable consequence of the gap between the role it claims to play and the position it has taken over Iraq and other issues. The UN is supposed to be a representative body of the international community, regulating the activities of individual states for the good of the world as a whole. The reality is rather different. The UN has become a rubber-stamp for the US, unable to act even when the world’s sole superpower is blatantly defiant of international law and the international community. Events before the invasion of Iraq, when the opposition even of most permanent members of the UN Security Council could not deflect the US, made this obvious even to naive observers; the UN’s post facto legitimisation of the US conquest emphasises the point. Little wonder, then, that many in Iraq, even those who realize that the UN includes relief agencies that are committed primarily to providing services, such as UNICEF, still see the UN as a whole as an instrument of the occupying power, and so a legitimate target for resistance.
This is not to disparage the people in such agencies who are genuinely committed to helping the needy of world. It cannot be denied that many in the West recognise a duty to those less fortunate than themselves, taking risks and making sacrifices to help them. Nor should the value of much of this work be tarnished by the facts that much of the need they try to address is created by the same exploitative economic system from which they benefit, and that the work of these agencies is tainted by cultural imperialism and institutional racism. However, the managers of such agencies have a responsibility to understand how their work is exploited by the West’s political powers, affecting the way they are seen by those they are trying to help. In Iraq, for example, Western politicians take credit for the work relief agencies do, claiming that the provision of relief services justifies the war that created much of the hardship. The fact that many relief workers are Westerners (few non-whites are given positions of responsibility in aid agencies), and that they often live, work and socialise with the occupying forces, only reinforces the association.
What relief workers and agencies need to do, particularly in areas of tension and conflict such as Iraq, is to realize that the West as a whole, and western political powers in particular, are not regarded as benevolent forces by the vast majority of the world’s people. So association with those Western powers damages the work the agencies are trying to do. In Palestine, aid workers generally share Palestinian perceptions of Israel, Israeli troops and zionist settlers. The fact that many aid workers understand the issues, and sympathise with the Palestinians despite the fact that they have to deal with the Israeli authorities in the course of their work, gives them significant credibility among Palestinians. Their work does nothing to ameliorate the effects of Western political support for Israel, and this is well known in Palestine, but Palestinian resistance movements clearly differentiate between western aid workers and Israeli occupiers, and have never targeted the former.
This is the sort of politically neutral position that aid agencies in Afghanistan, Iraq and other places much adopt vis-a-vis the US, Britain and other Western governments, if they want to be seen as genuinely working for the victims of imperialistic, hegemonic wars of aggression. Part of this neutrality must be the recognition that association with the UN will remain a liability as long as the UN remains a puppet of the Western powers. As long as aid agencies allow themselves to be exploited politically by Western governments, and fail to distance themselves from the West’s political arms, there will always be a risk of more of the West’s best, most selfless people coming home in body-bags.