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Insights by a veteran diplomat

by Anthony Fensom

IN THE VALLEY BETWEEN WAR AND PEACE: Personalities I Met, by Yasushi Akashi. European Center for Peace and Development, 2012, 119 pp., (hardcover)

The United Nations may be a popular target for critics, but it is an institution where Japan has long invested much of its foreign policy capital. Among Japan’s pre-eminent diplomats, few have enjoyed a more distinguished career at the international body than Yasushi Akashi, who, despite being well past retirement age, continues playing an active role in international affairs.

Currently serving as Japan’s special peace envoy to Sri Lanka, the 81-year-old native of Akita Prefecture has led a number of U.N. peacekeeping efforts, including the historic Cambodian peace talks and elections of 1993.

However, Akashi’s toughest post was likely in the former Yugoslavia, where in 1994 he was catapulted into the bloody civil war as the U.N. secretary general’s special representative. Following previous embarrassments in Somalia and Rwanda, the organization’s appetite for risk-taking was low and the Balkans conflict proved no less troublesome for the divided body.

First published in Japanese by Iwanami Shoten, Akashi’s “In the Valley Between War and Peace” should be of interest to both history students and diplomats for a brief but inside view of the conflict and its leading protagonists.

Akashi walked a tightrope in the Balkans and the book attempts to defend his actions and those of the U.N., which sought to demonstrate neutrality and build peace in the face of brutal “ethnic cleansing.”

Traditionally, the world body based its peacekeeping efforts on having consent from all sides, maintaining impartiality and using force for self-defense purposes only. However as Akashi notes, it was impossible to carry out the U.N. mandate in conflicts where there was a “lack of discipline and order within the parties and scant respect paid to U.N. authority.”

The impotence of such principles was clearly exposed at the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which occurred despite the Bosnian town being ostensibly under U.N. protection. Described by the U.N. secretary-general as “the worst crime on European soil since the Second World War,” the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces sparked calls for stronger international military intervention.

Yet, while the war was raging, a parallel battle of public opinion was also being fought. According to Akashi, the Bosnian Muslims “adroitly tickled the feelings of American people,” and a number of “inhuman acts and atrocities committed by Muslim and Croatian forces were seldom brought to life by Western media.”

Akashi claims the guilt was shared, judging from the number of prosecution cases brought to the U.N. Special Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which, as of 2007, comprised 60 against Bosnian Serb forces, 15 against Bosnian Croats and four against Bosnian Muslims.

However, while truth may be the first casualty of war, Akashi’s criticism of the media for its “oversimplified” portrayal of the conflict is misguided given the overwhelming evidence.

Akashi’s anecdotes of meetings in luxurious restaurants and villas with war criminals such as Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic may also be difficult to stomach for readers. It is hard to imagine exchanging pleasantries with people who might order the destruction of a village as readily as requesting the salt shaker.

In describing various protagonists, the author criticizes leaders on all sides for being emotional, opportunistic or nationalistic. Yet the U.N. also suffered its own internal warfare, with a divided Security Council, contrasting goals with NATO, and personality clashes between military and civilian officials.

Despite the lessons from the Yugoslav conflict, the current civil war in Syria has once again shown the weakness of the U.N.’s consensus-based approach. Akashi claims it is difficult to distinguish between good and evil in a conflict, yet arguably in most wars, the main aggressor is readily apparent.

The author also warns Japan against maintaining an overly pacifist approach and being excessively “inward looking” due to the nation’s need to play a leading role in global collective security.

While the U.N.’s actions in the former Yugoslavia were highly contentious, Akashi did manage to maintain his principles despite severe pressure. With tensions rising in East Asia, impartial negotiators are clearly needed and they could do well to adopt the veteran diplomat’s guiding philosophy.