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Congratulations, Russia and Georgia

Your wrangling over the name of the UN mission that was scheduled to be extended last month, in a fairly de rigueur process, has resulted in the departure of the 130-odd UN observers that many in Abkhazia -- from government officials to everyday people -- trusted as the only effective objective presence in the border region.

"We were interested in the mission continuing its work," Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said.

"(The mission) opened contacts for us, making it possible for us to participate in the international (diplomatic) process; our problem would be discussed at U.N. Security Council meetings." There are more than 200 E.U. observers in Georgia itself, but they are not allowed to enter Abkhazia. The E.U. observers only patrol the Georgian-controlled part of the conflict zone.

"The U.N. cars used to patrol our village, and we would feel more secure," said a 72-year-old woman who lives in Nabakevi in Abkhazia and declined to give her name. "The end of the mission to me means the end of the hope for peace." [emphasis mine]

The concerns about Georgia and Russia gearing up for a another war should not be taken lightly. Last year's confrontation was completely unnecessary, a result of foolish provocation from both sides. The short-sighted step of forcing out UN observers is a rash move down the same counterproductive line. Their departure may not be the end of peace prospects, but it certainly makes them look a lot dimmer.

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U.S. names Great Lakes Special Envoy

Will a new U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region (that's Congo-Rwanda-Burundi, not Michigan-Wisconsin-Illinois) solve MONUC's difficulties?  Well, no, but it's still good to see the United States engaged in the oft-neglected region.  And the man tapped for the job, Howard Wolpe, is, as his informed introductions of many a speaker over at the Woodrow Wilson Center indicate, one of the more knowledgeable Africa hands that President Obama could have picked.

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Bringing Pakistan’s displaced home — voluntarily

It's encouraging to see that John Holmes, the UN's humanitarian coordinator, understands one of the most fundamental principles of dealing with situations of mass displacement: that returns must be voluntary. If returns are forced, it means that people don't yet feel safe returning to their homes, and the resettlement can effectively act as renewed displacement.

Discussing Pakistan's plan to begin returns for some of the more than two million displaced by last month's army offensive, Holmes was adamant:

"We have been clear to the government, and the humanitarian community has in general, that this has got to be voluntary and the government say they accept that.

"Obviously they want to encourage people to go back, but we need to be very careful that it is a proper process, that it is voluntary, that the conditions are right when they get there, the basic services as well as security," he said.

The only awkward part was his admission that he is -- understandably -- "a bit uncomfortable" with the fact that the same army that conducted the military operation will also be leading the return program.

And in case anyone thought that returning two million people to their homes was going to be easy -- it's also going to cost billions of dollars in reconstruction. In two months, donors have met less than half of the UN's rather modest appeal for $542 million.

(image from flickr user Al Jazeera English under a Creative Commons license)

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Babylon besieged!

Well, okay, actually just damaged.  But it is (mostly) because of war.

American troops and contractors in Iraq inflicted serious damage on the archaeological site of Babylon in Iraq, driving heavy machinery over once-sacred paths, bulldozing hilltops and digging trenches through the terrain, Unesco experts said Thursday. “The use of Babylon as a military base was a grave encroachment on this internationally known archaeological site,” said a report that the United Nations cultural agency presented in Paris.

This is what the Hanging Gardens of Babylon looked like before the American occupation 2500 years ago.  It's a shame that one of the original Seven Wonders of the World still isn't able to be recognized as a World Heritage site.  Saddam carving his name into some of the buildings also didn't help.

(image from flickr user Carla216 under a Creative Commons license)

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This is how terrorism affects innocents

Not just directly, but indirectly:

The United Nations food agency has suspended aid work in the southern Philippines after a spate of deadly bombings in the region.

The U.N. World Food Program feeds more than 300,000 families displaced by conflict in the southern Philippines. On Wednesday, the Manila office advised its staff in the region to suspend food distribution this week because of a series of deadly bombings.

That so few can prevent so many from being fed, and sabotage the peace prospects for an entire country, is a travesty.

(image from seav, under a GNU Free Documentation License)

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When truth and reconciliation get political

It's not very surprising that Liberia's opposition party is taking advantage of this opportunity to call for the country's president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to resign. "This opportunity" is the recent recommendation by Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that Johnson-Sirleaf, because of her early support for the rebel group led by eventual dictator, current indicted war criminal, and recent convert to Judaism Charles Taylor, be banned for politics for 30 years.

As unsuprising as the political reaction to the TRC's report are the facts underlying the case. When Johnson-Sirleaf was elected, she made no secret of her earlier support for Taylor. Without imputing any comparison of the justness of the two causes, think of the Robert Mugabe case in Zimbabwe. Current prime minister and political rival Morgan Tsvangirai has said that he admires Mugabe's rise to power, qua rebel, in 1980 -- but that this does not excuse the crimes committed by Mugabe's regime since then.

Johnson-Sirleaf's tenure, moreover, has decidedly not resembled Mugabe's, and her support for Taylor did not involve her in the human rights abuses that characterized the dictator's modus operandi. The TRC, then, seems to be injecting itself pretty clearly into the country's political debate. The suggestion that a sitting president should be banned from politics can't really be anything but political.

This may or may not be pushing the boundaries of what a truth and reconciliation commission is meant to achieve. It's good to have the truth out there -- even if everyone already knew it -- if only because, as Chris Blattman reasonably argues, many in the West have a tendency to over-canonize Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. But there's not much that calling for a popular sitting politican to abandon office is going to do other than provide an arrow for the politically opportunistic opposition.

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More bombs, more sanctions?

The Security Council is holding a closed-doors meeting in five about two minutes to discuss North Korea's most recent missile launch.  In the meantime...

A U.N. sanctions committee is considering blacklisting more North Korean companies and individuals for supporting Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. It is meant to complete its work by Friday.

The folks in Pyongyang don't seem to be doing themselves any favors.

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A couple of positive outcomes from the UN investigation in Gaza

Even though Israel is not participating, or did not allow the commission -- headed by South African judge Richard Goldstone -- to pass through Israeli territory, it seems to have helped bring about two developments that can be applauded.

First, despite its opposition to the probe, which is mandated to investigate actions of both the Israeli military and Hamas, the Israeli government has agreed to provide compensation for the damage inflicted upon UN buildings, including a school, in Gaza during the December/January offensive.  This is a welcome step, though it does not of course excuse the inexcusable: bombing a UN building, even by accident, but particularly if targeted, makes Ban Ki-moon very, very angry.

Second, and more directly, the commission was able to hear from Israeli witnesses, most prominently the father of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, in Geneva.  That the investigation is seeking out such witnesses should be signs enough to the Israeli brass that it is not "hopelessly biased," but alas, that train, as they say, has sailed.