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Putting back the pieces


Reality in Iraq today ... a shoe store in Baghdad.

WHEN Ramiro Lopes da Silva, the United Nations' Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq, stepped out of his car in Baghdad at the end of a gruelling 900-kilometre journey from Amman at the beginning of May, he saw at first hand the task that awaited him and his team. The U.N.'s long-time headquarters, the Canal Hotel, had been looted and practically stripped bare in the chaotic aftermath of the city's fall two weeks earlier. The task of rebuilding would literally begin at home.

Not that the rebuilding of Iraq is Mr. Lopes da Silva's priority, strictly speaking. He and his colleagues have a more urgent challenge — working with the U.N.'s brave Iraqi staff, who stayed on through the war, to restore essential supplies and services to forestall a humanitarian emergency. Anything beyond such aid would require a new mandate from the Security Council. But as the U.N. flag flies again in Baghdad, many have begun asking what else the United Nations can do.

The United Nations isn't yearning to "nation-build" in Iraq. It isn't a multinational corporation whose survival depends on increasing market share. The coalition has won the war; the world must now ensure that the Iraqi people win the peace. But if the U.N. can help, it is ready to — provided the Security Council agrees on its role. As these words are written, intense discussions on a United States draft resolution are still continuing in the Security Council.

Aside from an ambiguous experiment in nation-building in the Congo in the 1960s, this was not something the U.N. was much called upon to do during the Cold War. In the 1990s, though, the U.N. has been tasked with creating and training a national police force in Bosnia, rehabilitating combatants in Sierra Leone, conducting elections in Mozambique, and administering the territory of Eastern Slavonia during its transition back to Croatian authority.

The U.N.'s first major effort in nation-building came in Cambodia, following the 1991 peace accords. Setbacks and successes there and, later, in places like Kosovo and East Timor have taught us many valuable lessons. In Cambodia, the U.N. was asked, in effect, to re-invent a country. We did many things right: ran five key government ministries, brought home hundreds of thousands of refugees, and organised free elections that created a new internationally recognised government. But we got things wrong, too. Some of our peacekeeping troops proved inept; critics felt we placed more emphasis on elections than on institution-building, and many thought we left too soon. The U.N. learned from this experience, and did better next time.

In Mozambique, we ended a brutal civil war, disarmed the rebels, held free elections and left in place a government that is one of the success stories of Africa. In 1999, U.N. nation-building expanded to running full transitional administrations in Kosovo and East Timor, both ripped apart by war. Kosovo proceeds fitfully towards real autonomy, its ultimate political future still unsettled. But one year ago the new state of Timor Leste became the 191st member of the U.N., and the U.N. mission began downsizing immediately, staying on (at the Government's request) to help till mid-2004. In Afghanistan, the U.N. midwifed a political process that gave birth to an interim Afghan government, whose ministers began their work with desks, stationery and telephones provided by the U. N. We work with a "light footprint" — treading softly as a sovereign government finds its own feet.

The key U.N. contribution has been the international legitimacy that comes from Security Council authorisation of these administrations. Thereafter, what we can do depends on what we are asked to do. We've learned how important it is to move rapidly to establish a secure environment, to pull potential antagonists into a common goal, and to deliver "quick wins", practical measures to improve the daily lives of ordinary people. It's essential to create political institutions that locals run, so that they can quickly take charge of their own destinies. We know nations are not built by militaries: as Talleyrand memorably said, the one thing you can't do with a bayonet is sit on it. Yet we didn't have a stable of civil administrators, police experts, international jurists or economists before we were called upon to run countries that needed them, but we now can mobilise a large cadre of experienced people from dozens of countries. Some ex-U.N. staff are already assisting U.S. forces in post-Saddam Iraq.

In any nation-building exercise, the builders teeter to find balance between what is sustainable and what is politically necessary. The job takes time and demands a talent for adaptability. As we've learned in Kosovo, big-picture issues like the rule of law (meaning democratic legislation, a professional police to apply it and an independent Judiciary to uphold it) jostle with more mundane activities like traffic tickets, business regulations, and building codes. Iraq is not Kosovo, but some of the challenges will be the same. What law should apply? Can pre-war administrators be reappointed? In both East Timor and Kosovo, there was almost no judicial infrastructure. Courthouses were in ruins; records destroyed or disappeared. Computers, fans, heaters, pencils, paper — gone. Iraq after the looting might be no better.

The economics of nation-building, the reintegration of ex-combatants, a fair taxation system, the exploitation of oil and gas resources — the U.N. has grappled with these issues elsewhere, and the new rulers of Iraq will have to tackle them as well. Such operations do not always go well, and never flawlessly. From Cambodia to Sierra Leone, the U.N. has taken paths that went awry and made plans that needed to be reconsidered. But with solid successes from Mozambique to Timor, we have learned much. As the U.S. consolidates its position in Iraq, bureaucrats in Washington will no doubt be studying the U.N.'s record. Experience is the best teacher, and the lessons the U.N. has learned are freely available for the world to apply.

Shashi Tharoor is the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information and the author of seven books, most recently Riot and (with M.F. Husain) Kerala: God's Own Country.

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