Can the world save the UN?

Peacekeeping tops the agenda of the largest-ever gathering of world leaders.

More than 150 heads of state have arrived in New York from all over the globe to discuss how the United Nations can save the world from poverty, global warming, and ruthless dictators, in what is being billed as the largest-ever gathering of world leaders (Clinton agenda, page 3).

Yet, some say much of the discussion will focus instead on how the world can save the UN - and its core mission to bring peace to warring nations.

"Peacekeeping is going to be at the center of this summit," says Jean David Levitte, the French ambassador to the UN. "Beyond the ritual call for reforms, the world leaders will this time map out concrete orientations to enhance UN peace missions."

Pressure is growing for a major overhaul of UN peackeeping methods. Most of the 20 new UN operations launched this past decade - compared with 13 in its first 40 years of existence - have turned into fiascoes.

Today, President Clinton is expected to endorse the changes recommended in a recent report requested by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The UN report, released two weeks ago, calls for the creation of brigade-sized forces of 5,000 troops each that could intervene within 30 or 90 days, depending on the complexity of the mission. This would bring to the UN what experts say it lacks the most: flexibility. It also calls for better-trained troops, high-tech communication links, and more sophisticated military planning. On Monday, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and some members of Parliament proposed reforms and new institutions that include establishing a UN peacekeeping college, possibly in Britain.

The call for reform of the UN is nothing new. Over the past decade, the institution has faced strong criticism from the outside world for being too bureaucratic and amateurish. But experts say this is the first time that the push for change comes from within. "What's new is the willingness of the UN to be direct, clear, and explicit about its shortcomings and failures and to offer concrete and realistic solutions," says John Hirsch, vice president of the International Peace Academy in New York.

In the late 1980s, the breakdown of the Soviet empire sparked great hope among Western leaders for a new international order policed by the UN. But, the UN has had trouble living up to this expectation.

Yet, the UN has had some successes: for instance, in Cambodia in 1995, where parties had already agreed to a truce. And in East Timor last year, after UN troops got involved, they brought some stability in preparation for the half-island's independence. But victories are few, compared with the numerous quagmires. In 1994, the reluctance of member states prevented the Security Council from sending troops into Rwanda, where 800,000 died in a genocide. In 1995, the UN ordered its peacekeepers to stay neutral in the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

THEY stood by, powerless, as thousands of Muslim civilians were massacred by Serb militias. Last May, 500 ill-equipped peacekeepers were held hostage by rebels in Sierra Leone. On Sept. 4, six British soldiers, part of a contingent in Sierra Leone helping to train government troops, were still being held hostage by militiamen. Experts explain these failures by saying the UN has not yet adapted to a new world order and dropped principles inherited from the cold-war area.

The UN's reluctance to give up its notion of neutrality and to override state sovereignty prevents it from intervening efficiently in today's conflicts that have become mostly internal. Some inherent ambiguities also cripple the institution, experts say. The UN reluctance to resort to violence hampers its own peace operations. The lack of a military culture among UN officials, poor strategy, and weak rules of engagement often doom operations before they even start.

"Peace missions are doomed to fail because of the UN's ambivalence of use of force," says Abraham Sofaer, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "The UN doesn't like to kill, but you have to be good at it if you want to bring peace."

Finally, experts say, the UN lacks resources; the peacekeeping department's budget has not grown for the past six years. The need to increase and better equip UN staff is urgent, they say. Currently, only 41 officials from the peacekeeping department in New York supervise the 37,000 peacekeepers dispatched in 14 operations, ranging from the Balkans to Cyprus to Lebanon.

Experts agree there are no credible alternatives to the UN today. Some have been tried in the past decade. Regional organizations, mercenaries (called into Sierra Leone in 1996 to fight the rebels), or even NATO were called upon to take over the peace missions.

But none of them had both the resources and the legitimacy of the UN. "All the alternatives to the UN have failed or faded out," says Bernard Miyet, UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations. "That is why the reform of the UN is so important."

The world leaders are expected to chart out the reforms of the peace mission during this three-day summit. They will call for a better mandate and stronger forces, after which the UN General Assembly will consider the proposals.

Yet, some observers say the cost of change might intimidate some countries, such as the United States. The US is currently fighting to reduce the American contribution to peacekeeping operations from 31 to 25 percent, a precondition set by Congress to pay the $1.7 billion that the US owes to the UN. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are scheduled to meet tomorrow to discuss a new formula for dividing up peacekeeping costs. The current formula hasn't been revised in nearly two decades.

"I think, ultimately, sensible leaders will see the utility of multilateral commitment and find ways to preserve peace through the UN in the 21st century," says Mr. Sofaer. "But the chances of success are as great as the chances of failure."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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