Can the UN perform?

The photograph is striking: it shows 180 world leaders massed together during the United Nations' recent Millennium Summit. The leaders had all signed a statement favoring peace, democracy, and the welfare of children. Do we think, therefore, that we now have an effective model for dealing with hot spots on our often turbulent globe?

Unfortunately, no, as the facts bear out. The UN peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone is still being torn apart by internal disagreements and recriminations. A specialist who recently resigned from the UN mission in East Timor published a scathing critique of the mission's high-handed, antidemocratic approach there. And have you visited the home page of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees recently? At www.unhcr.ch, you can always see what is happening - despite UN presence - to many of the world's most marginalized and vulnerable peoples.

There are many reasons for the distressing performance of many UN missions. The lack of true commitment to the UN's goals by the world's "sole superpower" here in America is part of that story. But there are other reasons, too, as evidenced in the analysis of the UN's Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), published recently by former UNTAET official, Jarat Chopra.

The UN has not adapted itself well to the post-cold-war era. Back in the old days, the UN would only send peacekeepers into places where there was an existing peace to keep, as committed to by the responsible political authorities on both sides. But over the past decade, UN peacekeepers have increasingly been sent into places where there is little peace to keep. Such "fuzzy" operations cry out for a high degree of political smarts by the missions' leaders.

That much has been crystal clear since the debacles in Somalia in the early 1990s. But inside the relevant UN bodies, there is still a disturbing rift between people of military background (who accuse most diplomats of being lousy administrators) and political specialists (who accuse generals of being deaf to political considerations).

According to Mr. Chopra, writing in the London journal Survival, that rift continues inside the UN mission in East Timor. East Timor is the only place in the world where the UN now operates as the sole and sovereign power. As such, it has huge responsibilities to the country's people. And UNTAET's mandate makes clear that it is supposed to view itself only as a "transitional administration" while paving the way for the local people to exercise their own sovereignty.

So you think that UNTAET has been busy preparing the East Timorese for self-rule? Think again. According to Chopra, a respected political-affairs specialist who resigned from UNTAET in March, UNTAET head Sergio de Mello has taken the following steps: He has severely limited the participation of East Timorese in his administration, bitterly opposed a broad World Bank-funded project aimed at empowering local communities, and rebuffed attempts by the UN's Electoral Assistance Division to help the East Timorese prepare for future elections.

Chopra's conclusion is that, just as the UN has showed itself ill-suited to leading high-intensity military operations, so too, it may be ill-suited to effective civilian governance. "As with the use of force, perhaps coalition missions led by single countries may be more effective for temporary government," he suggests.

With respect to the mission of promoting East Timor's independence, Chopra's prescription may well be correct. But that will not help the UN get out of the political imbroglios it finds itself in elsewhere - in places where there are other (often contending) local sovereign powers. In all cases, those in the Security Council who dispatch UN peace forces need to keep in mind the essential truth that any such mission needs to have effective and unambiguous leadership from the political echelon.

Can the Security Council, as presently constituted, supply that? If it can't, then perhaps it should not be putting any peacekeepers' lives at risk.

*Helena Cobban is author of 'The Moral Architecture of World Peace' (University Press of Virginia).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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