No one felt like celebrating at the UN's 50th anniversary last year - the wounds of Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia were too raw. David Hannay, formerly British ambassador to the UN, says its failings are overstatedby David Hannay / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The dust is beginning to settle after the 50th anniversary of the United Nation’s founding. It is time to take a cool look at the UN’s role in achieving international peace and security. Much of the public comment which accompanied that anniversary last year was disappointingly short term in its outlook and unjustifiably negative in content. There was an obsession with Bosnia, almost to the exclusion of everything else the UN has done in recent years. There was a failure to recognise that the UN will never be a complete success story-but that its failures and its weaknesses do not discredit its successes and its strengths. Above all, there was a singular absence of ideas on how to learn from the experiences of the past few years and ensure that the UN works better in the future. My criticism of the 50th anniversary comment merely illustrates a paradox of our times. While politicians and policy makers are increasingly aware of the need for co-operative international action-on armed conflict, trade and investment, or drugs and terrorism-they find it hard to overcome the difficulties of organising such action. What has come to be known as the “CNN factor” plays a damaging role in almost everything that the UN does. If the spotlight of publicity is not on a particular international problem, it is hard to get the attention and effort needed to address it. But when the spotlight is on it, two contradictory forces apply. First, the cry goes out when faced with horrendous television images of suffering that something must be done. Then, when intervention turns out to be messier and more costly than expected, the cry to “bring the boys home” quickly follows. The “CNN factor” reinforces the shallowness and fickleness of support for international action, stemming from a lack of public understanding of what international organisations can hope to achieve. The UN’s multiplicity of agencies and alphabet soup of acronyms is certainly confusing and not conducive to enlisting the sustained support required for complex and risky peace-keeping operations. But for all the UN’s organisational faults, its secretary general and its secretariat are international civil servants and cannot be expected to bear the main burden of what is essentially a political task. This can only be done by the political leaders of the UN’s member states explaining to their publics why it makes sense for their troops and their tax-payers’ money to be used in the common service. Every time the UN becomes a scapegoat, or is treated as some amorphous and disembodied entity whose activities can be disavowed, the task of rallying political and material backing for the UN is made more difficult. Order and disorder Three crucial international developments in the past five years have transformed the marginal, discredited UN of the 1970s and 1980s and propelled it much closer to the centre of the world stage. These are: the end of the cold war, the downfall of the apartheid system in South Africa and the establishment of a middle east peace. Thus, within a short time, three poisonous thorns which had prevented almost any action by the UN for decades were drawn. For the first time in its history, the UN and its security council became capable of acting as the founding fathers intended. What has been less welcome is that these three events, far from laying the foundations of a new world order (as was rashly proclaimed after the Gulf war), have ushered in a new world disorder-a rash of regional and ethnic strife around the world which no single state or group of states has been in any hurry to deal with, but which has been politically and morally unacceptable. Almost all of these conflicts ended up on the security council table. Not because the UN went looking for them, but because it was the wish of its member states that the UN should try to find peaceful solutions to them. That revealed another unexpected and unwelcome factor: although the UN’s political capacity for action had been enormously enhanced in recent years, no one had done much to enhance its practical capacity to implement such political action. A lot of heady new wine was poured into some old and cracked bottles. How did the UN cope? The story begins with two important successes: bringing Namibia to independence and reversing Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait. In Namibia an extremely complex peace-keeping and nation-building exercise was carried through to a successful conclusion. In Kuwait the UN, by refusing to acquiesce in Iraq’s aggression, by imposing comprehensive economic sanctions and authorising the use of force, gave an enormous boost to the rule of law and achieved a reversal of aggression more quickly and at lower cost than on any other occasion in the last century. Since the end of the Gulf war the UN has done a remarkable job in rendering harmless Saddam Hussein’s huge programme for weapons of mass destruction, the continuing development of which would by now have destroyed the middle east peace process. Three failures After those two successes the going got a good deal rougher, although there continued to be substantial achievements. In Cambodia, the five permanent members of the security council brought that country through free and fair elections to as close to peace as it has been for many years. In central America, the El Salvador peace-keeping operation crowned a series of successful UN involvements in that region. Only Guatemala remains unresolved. In Africa, Mozambique was helped out of a long and vicious civil war into free elections. In Angola, where an initial UN operation collapsed in renewed civil war, the UN persevered and is now making headway, implementing a second peace agreement. In Haiti, the transition from despotism to democracy may be fragile, but it is progressing, with the UN playing a key role. Against that record of achievement stand three failures: Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia. Of these, Somalia was probably the most complete, with the clearest lessons for the future. Even so, the original humanitarian expedition saved many thousands of innocent lives. But the subsequent slide into unsuccessful involvement in the endemic strife of the Somali clans demonstrated flaws in both concept and execution. The importance of not crossing the “Mogadishu line”- that is, not getting dragged into conflicts as a protagonist-is now burned into the consciousness of every UN policy maker and military commander following fierce fighting between the UN and the Somali warlords. In Rwanda the UN has received a disproportionate share of blame for circumstances in which it was virtually impossible to prevent a terrible loss of human life, given a Hutu-led government intent on genocide. It is worth noting that the UN is criticised in Rwanda for not doing precisely what it is criticised for doing in Somalia. Bosnia, and the UN’s involvement in the whole imbroglio of the former Yugoslavia, is the most difficult to judge. The failures are well known. They have been trumpeted by the media and by some governments whose responsibility for the policies thus criticised might have suggested a more circumspect response. On the other hand, preventing the conflict from spreading more widely and avoiding the involvement on one side or the other of any big power was, in the light of the Balkan experience of the latter part of the 19th century and the first half of this one, no mean feat. Saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Bosnians from exposure and starvation is not to be belittled: just look at the estimates of possible loss of life which circulated in the autumn of 1992, before the UN humanitarian military operation began. The preventative deployment of UN troops in Macedonia and Cy Vance’s successful mediation between Greece and Macedonia were two very effective moves. The UN plan for ensuring a high degree of autonomy for the Serb-populated parts of Croatia, within Croatian sovereignty, was not so much flawed in concept or execution as condemned to failure by the stubbornness of the Serbs in clinging on to their demand for independence, and by President Franjo Tudjman’s decision to grab on the battle field more than what was on offer at the negotiating table. Above all, the economic sanctions imposed by the UN on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia helped to bring about the split between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Serbs which laid the foundation for the peace process. None of this is to say that mistakes were not made by the UN in Bosnia, nor to deny that UN-Nato peace-keeping often led to more diplomatic in-fighting than effective deterrence of the Bosnian Serbs. But to admit that the UN should have got tougher, sooner, with the Serbs does not discredit the whole UN operation in Bosnia, nor does it prove that a better result could have been achieved by handing the job over to somebody else. Learning from history What can we learn from these successes and failures? How much more new world disorder are we in for and what are the options for dealing with it? The appalling example of the former Yugoslavia may have a deterrent effect on the use of force in those other ethnic rivalries in eastern and central Europe which Soviet domination froze but did not eliminate. The fate of Saddam Hussein’s lunge at Kuwait may deter other potential aggressors from imitating him. It may be that the action taken against Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of weapons will mean that countries such as North Korea will not become threats to international security. It may be, too, that the action taken by the UN against Colonel Qaddafi over the Lockerbie bombing will deter blatant state involvement in terrorism. Let us hope so-but let’s not count on it. Even if all these “ifs” come out right, there are still large areas of the world-in Africa, on the southern fringe of the former Soviet Union, in east Asia-where as yet there are no effective regional security arrangements, and where the chances of conflict breaking out are too high for comfort. Who will deal with them if they do? There are not many volunteers. The only remaining world superpower, the US, is not seeking the role of world policeman-although it can be expected to act if things really get out of hand or if its own vital interests are at stake. The Bosnian experience has shown that simply waiting for the US to decide that the moment has come is damaging to all concerned. European countries-the UK and France in particular, but increasingly Germany too-are willing to act, but only within a framework of international law and collective security. The same goes for many other countries, some of which are loosely organised in regional bodies. Enforcement dilemmas But in the end you come back to the UN. It cannot do everything, but neither should it do nothing. Can the UN do more to prevent conflicts breaking out in the first place? The problem is that sovereign states are reluctant to come to the UN with problems within their own borders, which is where so many of today’s wars begin. They are only too willing to come to the UN over a dispute with a neighbour, but usually to score diplomatic points rather than for genuine assistance. In theory, much more could be done under the heading of preventative action than is now being done. Countries in difficulties, either internally or with their neighbours, could be encouraged to come to the UN for assistance. The Macedonian example of preventative deployment of UN peace-keepers at the request of a single country which feels that it is threatened could be a model. There could be more frequent recourse to the International Court of Justice to settle territorial disputes. An international criminal court capable of handling cases involving significant breaches of international humanitarian law would have a far greater deterrent effect than the present post hoc expedients in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. There is nothing novel in these ideas. The problem is not a shortage of ideas, but rather the capacity to implement them. Even the best organised preventative work will not stop some conflicts. Should the UN keep out of all actions requiring the use of force (known as enforcement operations)? Following the experiences of Somalia and Bosnia, the over-simple answer is yes. Certainly those experiences are replete with evidence of the problems of command and control on which the UN has stubbed its toe in recent years. Those who say that in future enforcement action will need to be carried out by what is called a coalition of the willing, as during the Gulf war, or by a more integrated military organisation such as Nato, have had the better of the argument. But this begs a number of questions. What if there is simply no coalition of the willing? What if no one’s vital national interests are at stake? What if the action takes place in a region such as Africa or the former Soviet Union, or almost anywhere except Europe, where it is not conceivable that Nato or the Western European Union (WEU) should become involved? And what does the UN do if a peace-keeping operation suddenly requires some modest measure of enforcement? I do not dispute the conventional wisdom that the UN should, as a general rule, keep out of enforcement. But it is easier to say such things than to apply them. The UN security council and its members (its permanent members in particular) will remain crucial in any future enforcement operations, whether or not UN troops are involved. That presupposes an irreducible minimum of co-operation between the permanent members-which is less easy and less straightforward to achieve now than it was a year or two ago. It could become even worse when the security council is enlarged, as it will be before the end of the century. It is not easy to think of circumstances in which new permanent members such as Germany and Japan would use their veto in a different way from the US, the UK or France. But India or Brazil might be a different story. As troubles mount over both peace-keeping and enforcement operations there has been a temptation to look elsewhere, in particular to regional bodies. Could this not be done better by the organisation of American states (OAS), by the organisation of African unity (OAU), or by the organisation for security and co-operation in Europe (OSCE)? There will clearly be cases where OAU observers are acceptable in Burundi when UN ones are not. Or where OAS border monitors are acceptable on the boundary between the Dominican Republic and Haiti when UN ones are not. Or where OSCE officials can mediate in Chechnya when UN officials are not allowed to do so. Rivalry between nation states pales into insignificance compared with rivalries between international organisations. But there is now an urgent need to work together, to share information and early warning reports of emerging problems, as well as to discuss openly which organisation is best placed to take preventative action. When it comes to peace-keeping, however, regional organisations are not in a position to take much of the load. It is simply fanciful, for example, to suppose that the OAU will be able itself to finance substantial peace-keeping operations in the foreseeable future when many of its member states are already in massive arrears on their regular budget contributions. Experience in the OSCE over funding a peace-keeping operation for Nagorno-Karabakh has not been particularly encouraging. The same countries with the same tax-payers are involved in both regional organisations and the UN. There is no point in robbing Peter to pay Paul-or more likely, given actual experience in this field, paying neither Peter nor Paul. It seems we are left with the UN’s imperfect peace-keeping machinery. Its failings have been mercilessly exposed several times in the recent past, as it has struggled to cope with an unprecedented number and scale of operations. There have been innovations: a 24 hour a day situation centre and greatly improved logistical and staff planning of operations. But more could be done. Rapid deployment is anything but rapid. Speed of deployment enhances the political impact and the prospects for success of a peace-keeping operation just as delayed deployment has the opposite effect. One solution would be to have a UN standing force which could be deployed immediately after a political decision was taken by the security council. A better idea might be to encourage governments to hold a limited number of troops available at very short notice for UN duties. France, among others, has already volunteered to do this. Perhaps European countries, working through the WEU, could make a joint effort in this respect. Footing the bill Overshadowing all these issues is the UN’s current financial crisis. Without financial reform and an honoured commitment to pay contributions to peace-keeping budgets in full and on time, all other reforms will be of no avail. A core of countries-the Europeans and Scandinavians, Canada, Australia-pay in full and on time. Then there are the countries, such as Russia, whose failure to pay is understandable. And there is the US, which is responsible for over half of the organisation’s arrears. The recent US decision unilaterally to reduce the contribution to which it has a legal international obligation has made an already bad situation much worse. True, the US is the biggest contributor and it can be argued that it has been over-charged under the present system for raising peace-keeping dues. But Europe as a whole pays well over one third of the bill, and many European countries pay more per head than the US tax-payer. There are other anomalies. Most industrial countries pay about six or seven dollars per head each year (once all payments are considered) while some of the fastest growing developing countries-such as China-pay less than 60 cents. The UN desperately needs a new scale of assessments which objectively measures capacity to pay; and which adjusts such measurements rapidly and without political interference to take account of relative shifts upwards or downwards in national prosperity. Such proposals are on the table in New York in the name of the UK and Sweden. They could provide for a lower, and hence more equitable, US contribution than the present system. The UN faces a difficult 51st year. Public support for its activities has been undermined by events in Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, as well as the turning inwards of political opinion in the aftermath of the cold war, especially in the US. There is no longer any generalised and immediate threat to world peace of the kind we lived with for four decades after the second world war. But in a world filled with governments aspiring to possess weapons of mass destruction, the technology for which is no longer secret, the penalties of complacency are likely to be even heavier than they were after the first world war. It is often suggested that the UN will simply have to get along without much help from the US. But that is no more realistic an option than it was for the League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s.