Sunday, August 16, 2009

This road to hell paved with pale blue intentions

Cambodian security force members stand watch outside the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia on the second day of a UN-backed tribunal against former Toul Sleng commander Kaing Guek Eav, also know as "Duch" Tuesday, March 31, 2009, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On the first day of the trial prosecutors alleged that the former Khmer Rouge commander oversaw grisly atrocities at the Phnom Penh prison and that all who were imprisoned there were marked for death. (AP Photo/David Longstreath)

Winnipeg Free Press

By: Reviewed by Ron Robinson

Pale Blue Hope

Death and Life in Asian Peacekeeping

By Ronald Poulton
Turnstone Press, 224 pages, $22

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Canadian human-rights lawyer Ronald Poulton's intentions in Cambodia and Tajikistan were to see justice done by encouraging both countries to adopt and use Western legal systems and practices -- presumption of innocence, an independent judiciary, the golden chain of evidence that John Mortimer's Rumpole of the Bailey proclaims from beneath his powdered wig at the Old Bailey.

The results, as recalled in this critical memoir of being in harm's way, were a mix of Kafka and Keystone Cops.

Poulton saw duty as a human rights investigator in Cambodia in 1992, and as a legal advisor to UN peacekeeping in Tajikistan in 1998.

In both cases the gap between stated intentions and the actual support to achieve them from the countries involved and the UN was glaringly wide.

As he puts it, "Human rights work required muscle, and weapons to defend the innocent, I came to believe." Surely a statement Gen. Romeo Dallaire could have made.

The death of thousands is a headline, but the death of a single child described in detail reads as a tragedy. Poulton has the personal experience and the haunting memories to punch through our tired response to pleas of aid and understanding.

In Cambodia he comes to understand the power that ghosts have on the populace. Ghosts of the Khmer Rouge murdered millions. What simple legal precept can pacify a population where, as H.L. Mencken would have said, they "worship the principalities of the air"?

How can Poulton scold the "warden" of a prison where the prisoners are shackled to the floor each night, when the doors of the prison won't lock, the prison is short staffed, the prisoners have lied to him, and he knows that other similar prisons are much more brutal in their treatment of their captives ?

In Tajikistan he finds UN bureaucratic timeservers and a UN contingent hiding in their compound, locking themselves behind steel doors at night. Drinking alone, waiting for their turn to answer their nightly roll call by radio.

In this instance he is there to help discover who murdered Team Garm, three UN soldiers and their interpreter.

Three "combatants" (as the comedy team Beyond the Fringe used to say, it's difficult to distinguish between a terrorist and a freedom fighter when you're being disembowelled) have been ordered by their commander to turn themselves in to the police to answer questions about these deaths.

In a section worthy of an Ionesco or Pinter play, Poulton describes the twists and turns in the trial. He also conveys the power politics -- the subtle and not so subtle pressures to reach a speedy and seemingly already decided verdict.

Whatever the hopes were for the UN after the Second World War, it's hard to imagine that Lester Pearson, with his negotiating and horse-trading skills, would be happy with Poulton's summing up of the UN as an organization "doomed to chance."

Tribal ties trump blind justice would seem to be a fair summation of Pale Blue Hope. The title alone, with it's suggestion of faint hope, sums up its message, reinforced by the order of words in its subtitle. After all, who would willingly give up power, prestige and profit?

"Walk softly, but carry a big stick" may not be one of the Ten Commandments, but it still works in parts of the world where an AK-47 is preferred to a legal remedy. Poulton's book reads as a condemnation of the UN.

Winnipeg radio broadcaster Ron Robinson used to be a World Federalist.

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