During the 1990s, freelance journalist Linda Polman reported from United Nations peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Haiti and Rwanda. Assigned to report on the machinations of member states, Polman recalls the memorable words of one American diplomat: “UN resolutions are like hotdogs. If you know how they make ’em, you don’t want to eat ’em. You just swallow. No questions asked.” That response and others like it that were the inspiration for this book.

The bloody civil war in Somalia would have long-term implications for all future UN missions. The UN found little respect for its mandate. The clans went about their business as usual, safe in the knowledge that the “blue helmets” would not and could not intervene. The shame of the inadequate intervention in Rwanda is also well documented here, and the mistakes that were made with devastating consequences. But Polman also recognises the UN’s hidebound circumstances and evokes our understanding for its “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” condition. There’s even some humour in her account.

As mighty as the UN is with its fleets of gleaming white Land Rovers, and generous per diems, it is an organisation that always seems to be on the back foot, always the object of criticism and over analysis. After reading We Did Nothing, it is hard not to have some sympathy for its position. The question remains however, how can the UN have power and authority without being seen as a force of occupation? Perhaps that is for the sequel.

Phil Lee