Robert Bruce Adolph’s memoir details his life and career at the UN © Lea Diur

Expect the unexpected
Robert Bruce Adolph, retired UN security advisor turned author, reveals how his eventful career at the UN has led to an equally eventful retirement
1 Apr 2024

What inspired you to become an author after such successful military and UN careers?

My first four years of UN civil service were intense, beginning in late 1999. I served initially as the Chief Security Officer for UNAMSIL, the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone in West Africa. Unfortunately, there was no peace to keep. The Revolutionary United Front, which was composed of many child soldiers, invaded the capital of Freetown in May of 2000. My staff and I conducted a successful fixed- and rotary-wing aerial evacuation of over 200 civil staff under outrageously difficult and dangerous circumstances. My second posting was as UN Security Advisor for Yemen, where I consulted successfully on a dozen international kidnappings, dealt with Somali refugee camp violence, and a tribal gun fight with police that occurred in my apartment building in Sana’a. My later service was in Iraq, where I served in the capacity of what is today called a UN Chief Security Advisor. A jihadist vehicular suicide bomber attacked our headquarters, killing 22 people and wounding over 150 people on 19 August 2003. My wife, who was then acting as a consultant to the WFP, was one of those injured in the assault. My inspiration to become an author was based on these unusual and sometimes terrifying events.

What were the greatest challenges in your career at the UN?

There were a host of challenges. However, the greatest was no doubt faced in Baghdad, where so many of our friends and colleagues were killed by the extremists, including Under-Secretary General Sergio De Mello. We were unarmed and vulnerable. The Jihadists used over a ton of explosives loaded on the flat-bed truck and then drove it straight into our headquarters. The massive explosion collapsed one whole corner of the facility. I write in considerable detail describing the immediate aftermath of the attack, as well as those months leading up to the bombing, and about related events afterward too. Everyone who survived on that scorching summer day in the Canal Hotel (UN Headquarters) was badly traumatized, physically and/or psychologically. Overcoming my fear immediately after the blast… trying to make sense in all the confusion… getting my wife to safety… assigning search teams to scour the building for those still breathing… focusing on saving as many lives as we could. Then, in the wake of all that horror, learning to live with survivor’s guilt. The now iconic photograph of the tattered UN flag flying over the destroyed headquarters led the international news cycle for the next three days.

Why did you call your book, ‘Surviving the United Nations’, and what does it talk about?

Obviously, the book is a memoir. I entitled the work as I did because my survival, as well as the survival of my subordinates and colleagues, was often at risk. Frankly, death seemed always to be tapping on my shoulder. Also, there is a dual meaning here. My UN career was important to me. Regardless, I sometimes fought with my superiors. I had to survive those conflicts too. Tragically, a few of our most senior bosses did not always place a high priority on staff safety and security. So, the choice of this title seemed all but self-evident. My narrative focuses largely on the multiple dangers faced from both outside and within the world’s best known but often least understood international organization.

A career’s horizon reaches no bounds © Lea Diur

What is your opinion on the security system in which UN staff are operating now?

The UN Department of Safety and Security, which was created after the bombing, is far superior. Leadership is now at the Under-Secretary-General level. The quality of officer training is much improved as more money has been allocated. Important internal UN protocols are now established, including the UN Framework for Accountability – something that did not exist during the period covered in my book. Based on recent experience, my concern now is that the pendulum may have swung too far in the opposite direction. Security protocols are supposed to assist agencies in enabling their missions, not act as a straitjacket.

What was the main lesson you learned at the UN?

There are many lessons learned. These are enumerated in what I satirically call, “Bob’s Laws,” which can be found in the appendix of my book. I attempted to capture the wisdom that came my way because of these harrowing experiences. It must be remembered that a life is not defined by what you think, but by what you do. Bob’s Law 26 reflects this truism – “If you choose one word to guide your actions in life, make that word kindness.” I also discovered that working within an institution that is multinational, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural and multi-linguistic requires both patience and understanding.

How do you think the UN can make a difference?

The UN makes a very real difference in people’s lives every single day, especially within the humanitarian community. Nobody else does what UNICEF, WFP, WHO, and UNHCR can. The UN Department of Safety and Security, as well as all the agency security officers, make their mark by performing an essential task – working to preserve the lives of those who are attempting to feed the hungry, house the homeless, protect women and children, eradicate disease, and facilitate peace where there has been none. I am immensely proud of my UN service.

How do you compare the UN to other places you worked at?

I spent 26 years of my life learning the soldier’s trade, the taking of life. Following my retirement from active military service, I served 15 years as a senior UN security advisor, whose job was to preserve life. I find it interesting that the skill sets necessary to perform both functions are much the same. I know that I saved lives while in UN service and there is no better feeling.

What advice would you give staff working at the UN who are operating in difficult security situations?

1. Listen closely to your security advisor. S/he might just know something.

2. The best humanitarian field operators are always well versed in security rules and regulations.

3. You are irreplaceable for your family and friends. If you must take mission-driven risks, ensure that they are well considered.

4. Always develop an escape plan.


Is a successful international speaker, newspaper commentator, and senior Security Consultant. Following his UN retirement, he consulted for Habitat for Humanity International in Lebanon; the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in war-torn Ukraine; and most recently, the UN Development Program in Azerbaijan. Robert has been interviewed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, TV News and Radio programs, the World Affairs Conference, Italian National Public Radio, Netherlands Atlantic Council, and on multiple US and European podcasts. His book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and with multiple other on-line book sellers.

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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