It was a typically steamy day in the Mekong Delta in 1994 when I first met Leah Melnick. Thousands of ethnic Vietnamese fleeing violence in Cambodia had been stuck for months in horrendous conditions on small fishing boats on the Cambodia-Vietnam frontier. Leah, a diminutive, 20-something UN official was giving the visibly unhappy Cambodian border officers a mouthful -- in fluent Khmer.
I'm sure they agreed to her demands -- whether they were empowered to or not -- if only to escape her verbal venom. And if they failed to take the promised actions, I knew she'd be back.
Leah was a smart and wicked funny Bostonian who was passionate about her work. She moved to the wartime Balkans later that year, still with the United Nations. Although the differences between the Balkans and post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia were great, she easily made herself at home in both. When I got a job in Sarajevo in 1996, I knew I could always count on her for an authentic Asian meal and keen insights into the Bosnian political situation.
Ten years ago -- September 17, 1997 -- Leah died along with eleven others en route from Sarajevo to Bugojno in central Bosnia when their helicopter crashed into a mountainside in heavy fog. She was 30 years old.
Although I have never worked for the United Nations, I've often been on the ground alongside UN personnel. Their field operations have far too frequently suffered from lack of political will, misallocation of resources, and just plain incompetence. But there are individuals whose value on the ground makes up for a lot. They just go out and get the job done. Leah did that. As a UN human rights worker in difficult circumstances she made things happen, and many people were better off as a result.
Last summer a senior UN official made headlines by pointing out that the United States was a major beneficiary of UN peacekeeping operations, yet remained silent in the face of constant attacks on the United Nations in the US media. Although the administration's chief UN-basher John Bolton is gone and a US-friendly Ban Ki-moon is now the secretary-general, the administration has done little to improve American public perceptions of the international body.
This is especially unfortunate now that the United States -- its military forces overstretched and its reputation as a beacon of human rights tarnished -- needs the United Nations more than ever. Unsurprisingly the Bush administration is positively gushing over a much greater UN role in Iraq and in Darfur. But the administration remains unwilling to publicly throw its support behind the United Nations as an institution. This is evident in the administration's silence in the face of congressional measures to cut US funding to the UN Human Rights Council. While the new council got off to a very disappointing start, a greater US role, not disengagement, is needed so that the United Nations can be effective in promoting human rights globally.
UN peacekeeping missions and other field operations are today saving countless lives in numerous hotspots around the world -- places where the United States does not want to deploy its own forces. And the gains made have been in large measure because of the Leah Melnicks of this world. If the Bush administration fears risking domestic political capital by giving greater credit to the United Nations, the least it can do is publicly recognize the invaluable role UN personnel -- including many Americans -- are playing in dangerous places. It just might encourage more Americans to follow in Leah's proud footsteps.