UN crisis expert sharing worldly view

Paul Altesman has spent his 27-year career with the United Nations putting out fires and resolving crises around the world. He was in famine-struck Cambodia after the defeat of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, for example, and he was also on one of the earliest flights into Baghdad following the first Gulf War.

In addition, he’s had special assignments on behalf of the UN secretary general to participate in the negotiations for the Paris Peace Accords for Cambodia, the first UN missions to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, and the preparations for post-Oslo Peace Accords in the Middle East.

Since 1982, Altesman has been a director of the UN’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF), with responsibilities that have included participation in the coordination of all UN economic, social and emergency policies and programs. He regularly attended Security Council and General Assembly meetings, and he also participated in most UN-related economic or social world summit meetings during the 1980s and ‘90s.

Tuesday and Wednesday (April 17 and 18), Altesman will be in Chico, sharing his wealth of experience during two public lectures beginning at 7 p.m. in Holt 170 on the Chico State University campus. There will be no charge to attend.

In a phone conversation from his home in New York City, Altesman said he was still formulating his talks and was hoping that they would turn into open discussions as much as lectures. He’ll begin the Tuesday talk, he said, by describing two UN crisis interventions, the first in Cambodia and Southeast Asia, the second in Iraq following the first Gulf War.

The first mission was successful, and in fact was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. “Thirty years ago Cambodia and Vietnam were the worst places in the world,” Altesman explained, “but no longer.” Most important, they’ve enjoyed peace and the opportunity to rebuild, and the UN humanitarian and peacemaking effort in the region was an important part of that success.

The UN’s intervention in Iraq after the first Gulf War, in contrast, failed terribly, “with consequences we are feeling today.”

He said he intends to try to explain why one effort worked and the other didn’t. The answer, he suggested, remains highly relevant today.

His Wednesday talk will deal with underdevelopment and how the planet’s poorest nations can be helped. It will include a discussion of the roles of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, groups with which he has had extensive experience.

Altesman said that, although neither of his talks will deal specifically with the Iraq war, he’s hoping audience interest in that conflict will lead to lively Q&A sessions about the history and role of the UN in international peacemaking.