One of the most important expansions in modern peacekeeping has been the monitoring of human rights within states, which necessarily involves a certain degree of secrecy. UN human rights investigators, often part of a larger PKO, must encourage their witnesses to describe horrible acts they saw, experienced or even committed. Often, they must assure the witnesses that their names and identities will be kept confidential. In Guatemala, two UN bodies were created to oversee human rights: a Truth Commission,19 whose mandate was to investigate atrocities committed during the 36 days of civil war (up to 1994), and MINUGUA, which investigates current abuses (since 1994). Both bodies had to take precautions to ensure that witnesses willing to provide information not be identified. For example, human rights observers/investigators had to make sure they were not being followed before attending meetings with witnesses and informants. In fact, the Truth Commission hired carefully-selected Guatemalans, who made themselves inconspicuous by driving in their own unassuming pickup trucks, dressing in ordinary Guatemalan fashion and blending into the crowd, Many of the meetings were conducted at bars and at night, a far cry from the traditional UN observer patrolling under a UN flag and in conditions of maximum visibility.
The Guatemalan military has kept not only the UN monitors under surveillance but also officials of the Guatemalan government. While peace was being negotiated in the early 1990s, UN secretary-general Perez de Cuellar recalls, the Guatemalan President ‘found it necessary to communicate with my representative, Francesc Vendrell, through a used car dealer because he knew that all of his telephones were tapped’ by the military.20
The Truth Commission had a stronger mandate than MINUGUA for investigation: it could exhume bodies, while MINUGUA could ‘look at but not touch’ the evidence supplied to it. But because the Truth Commission was not allowed to assign blame to individuals (‘name names’) in its reports, it often employed a system of pseudonyms in its internal documents, and still keeps the links to real names carefully secured in safes.
In Haiti, UN human rights monitors had the difficult task of monitoring the local police units to which they were attached. Naturally, the Haitian police officers were wary about talking about the beating of detainees and other forms of abuses they may have witnessed or committed. But by combining confessions with a system of support, rehabilitation, and confidentiality, UN officials found that ‘the police were dying to talk.... We just had to create a space where they felt comfortable.’21
Human rights NGO’s have often supplied the UN with important information. Perez de Cuellar recently revealed that before making each trip abroad to countries known to commit human rights violations, ‘I was briefed confidentially by Amnesty International on individual cases of’ human rights abuse on which I might usefully intervene, It was my practice to take along a list of such cases on my travels …’22 He also highlighted the importance of secrecy:
The secretary-general can quite often intervene confidentially with a regime and gain the freedom, or at least an improvement in conditions, of individual political prisoners. Yet a critical public report can jeopardise his ability to perform this useful service.23
The element of secrecy became very important when Perez de Cuellar had to deal with the murky and tense world of hostage takers as he attempted to gain the release of those held in the Middle East. For example, a UN peacekeeper, Lt. Col. William Higgins of the U.S. Marines, was abducted in 1988 by an unknown group calling itself the ‘Organisation for the Oppressed of the World.’ Under-Secretary-General Philip Goulding met secretly with senior Arab officials but was unable to obtain the officer’s release. A videotape, which was eventually released to a newspaper in Beirut, Lebanon, was analysed to reveal that it was indeed Colonel Higgins’s body hanging from a scaffold.24
In dealing with hostage taking, it is important for the UN to know what governments are doing to save their nationals who are being held hostage, but, as might be expected, governments are reluctant to reveal their intelligence sources (for fear of compromising them) or their actions (for fear of exposing them, such as deals with terrorists). A case in point concerned VN efforts to release British hostages, including Alec Collett, a British journalist writing for the UN Relief and Works Agency in Palestine, who was taken hostage in 1985. Perez de Cuellar notes in his memoirs: ‘We kept in close touch with British authorities who were making their own efforts to free Collett although they never informed the United Nations of what they were doing.’25 Like Higgins, Collett is thought to have been murdered. The hostage takers claimed that Collett was a British spy, working for the United States on behalf of Israel, a lethal combination of allegations. This highlights how the UN must be ever-so-careful in permitting even the perception of intelligence agency complicity in sensitive mission areas such as the Middle East.
A more successful and encouraging outcome was obtained with the release of other hostages (including British citizen Terry Waite, and American Terry Anderson) in the fall of 1991. In top secrecy, Perez de Cuellar sent his ‘special adviser,’ Giandomenico Picco, to meetings with Iranian and Libyan leaders, as well as to engage in secret negotiations with underground groups in Lebanon. While enduring blindfolds, endless car rides, and a risk of himself being taken hostage, Picco was the channel for the exchange of secret information between Israel and Iran, as well as others during the episode. His efforts proved quite successful.