Alternative Path to Settling Conflicts

An international group forms to cut through governmental hurdles at world pressure points

WHEN the world's attention suddenly focuses on a bloody ethnic conflict in a remote land, political leaders often confront a quandary: They don't know how best to intervene in a situation they know little about, but they cannot turn away from suffering.

Open-ended conflicts that turn whole countries into war zones are on the rise, says the newly formed International Crisis Group, an autonomous, multinational collection of business and political leaders. And not enough is being done to stop such battles before they start, the ICG says.

"We want to head off crises before they develop, rather than reacting to crises after they happen," said ICG chairman George Mitchell to reporters at the start of the group's first board meeting high above Manhattan's Madison Avenue. Mr. Mitchell retired as a Democratic senator from Maine in 1994.

The private, nongovernmental organization (NGO) hopes that, by remaining nonpartisan, it can avoid the political and financial pitfalls that can limit the UN's effectiveness. "At the recent 50th anniversary of the United Nations, much was said about political and financial constraints on the UN system," Mitchell says. "ICG's independent status, combined with its multi-national leadership and collective experience, will enable it to speak with candor and authority."

Lack of political will

Mitchell says the group has already sent its first fact-finding team to Sierra Leone and plans to send another to Nigeria. The teams will report back to the ICG, which will, if the situation warrants it, try to persuade the world to intervene. Such intervention might range from mediation teams to peacekeeping troops, says Nicholas Hinton, ICG president and former head of the Save the Children Fund, UK.

"We believe that, more than anything, it is a lack of collective political will that prevented more timely action from being taken in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere," says Mitchell, who is currently assisting in the peace process between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Edward Joseph, director of communications of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based private organization that studies international affairs, has met with some of ICG's board and feels that they are on the right track. "I think they have a realistic grasp on the problems and their purpose, which is to galvanize states to action," Mr. Joseph says. "Because they are an independent NGO, they could have been extremely useful in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I think they can be a real asset in Africa."

The failure of the international community to intervene early on in the Balkan conflict prompted Morton Abramowitz, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to visit the region in early 1993. "After seeing the devastation there," he says, "I wondered whether there was anything I could do to change the world's slow response to future situations."

After bouncing the idea off a number of social and political officials, Mr. Abramowitz formed a steering committee of 50 international statesmen. "We realized," he says, "that the best way we could persuade countries to take action was to form a single-issue organization made up of senior officials who still had influence in their respective countries."

ICG members include the former prime ministers of France (Michel Rocard) and Australia (Malcolm Fraser); former Congressman Steve Solarz; financier George Soros; Graca Michel, chair of a UN study on armed conflict and the former minister of education in Mozambique; and leaders from Norway, Canada, and the European Parliament.

UN welcomes effort

Mr. Solarz, a vice chairman of the group, says the crisis in Rwanda, for instance, might have been contained had the UN agreed to an early proposal by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to send a multinational force. "If [the force] had been dispatched at that point, the UN could have saved thousands of lives," Solarz says. "We intend to be there to legitimize and give international respectability to future UN proposals."

The United Nations, says spokesman Fred Eckhard, welcomes ICG to the field of international diplomacy. "I think their group is very different because they are nongovernmental, but if they can apply their vast political influence onto their respective governments, then these governments might be more willing to vote for action in a UN vote."

Nations give monetary support

Solarz says ICG needs to act swiftly to gain the international community's respect. "We have to rack up some successes fairly early to show that we can make a difference," he says. "Through a combination of quality assessments and recommendations, ICG will hopefully come to be seen as a serious, significant organization to which governments and other NGOs look to for guidance."

Abramowitz says they already have been promised $2 million over the next three years from a collection of governments and business entities. The Republic of China, Australia, Finland, Norway, the United States, and New Zealand, as well as corporate donors the Daiwa Bank, the Soros Foundation, and the Rockefeller brothers have all given their financial support. Abramowitz says it is likely that ICG will open its main office in New York.

Eighty countries are currently on ICG's "crisis list," says Mr. Hinton, who adds that none of the donor countries is currently on it. He notes the board resolved not to take 15 percent in funding from any one source so as not to have its "hands tied behind one person or government."

Hinton also says it is essential for ICG to build up close relations with regional entities such as the Organization for African Unity, the European Union, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. "By starting these relationships we will be able to identify crisis-prone situations early," Hinton says. "And after we identify the situation, we will send in teams. It is at this point - before the situation becomes a conflict - that we want to pitch our tent."

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