Take the UN Security Council seriously again

AS a Muslim now living in Europe, I believe one aspect of the diplomatic fallout of the American bombing of Libya is being overlooked. Commentators here see the attack as having damaged the cohesion of NATO. Yet NATO, despite its broad mission, was not built for responding to a Colonel Qaddafi. The institution that is designed to deal with such challenges was overlooked -- namely, the United Nations Security Council.

It is the failure over the last 40 years to build up a credible international mechanism for resolving disputes before they turn violent that was shown up in the skies over Tripoli and Benghazi. Even if global action cannot break the deadlock of East-West confrontation, there is no excuse for having let the capacity to resolve conflicts of this sort slip away.

Because 40 years of disappointment has taken its toll on public expectations, we have given up even noticing what we are missing. Yet, looking at informed opinion in both the West and the rest of the world, it is safe to say that while there are deep-seated differences about the Middle East -- and the causes Libya espouses -- there is a shared concern about means. In the West the difference between America and its allies is not one of aim but method. Public opinion throughout the West is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Colonel Qaddafi is a danger.

Even most of those in Europe who have condemned the American action believe that. Reservations were about the bombing. Europeans wished there had been some other way to resolve the dispute than by having to resort to force. Many Americans would probably also have welcomed a more peaceful resolution. Bombing was the resort of an administration that felt it had run out of other alternatives.

But the frustration of a lack of peaceful means to sort out problems is not one-sided. Even those leaders in the Middle East who are opposed to Libya would ruefully acknowledge that Colonel Qaddafi is tapping a deep vein of anger. Again, many people, in the Mideast and elsewhere, oppose or have misgivings about the methods of ``last resort,'' such as terrorism, by which political causes have come to be pursued in the Middle East. The difficulty is that peaceful options often seem to have been exhausted.

Palestinians who have grown up knowing nothing but the life of a refugee camp are the tragic human byproducts of the failure of peaceful conflict resolution. The point is -- whatever one's personal view, or that of governments, on the Middle East situation and this new Libyan American twist to it -- surely we can all agree that the failure of peaceful diplomacy is increasingly dangerous. One unsolved dispute feeds into the next, so that the chain of ugly little wars gets ever longer, with a constant risk that they might set off a wider conflict.

This simple truth was already self-evident at the dawn of the nuclear age in 1945. War had become too dangerous a business. Hence the rationale behind the creation of the United Nations and its Security Council. The UN is now dismissed as a piece of liberal wishful thinking, but in fact the purposes behind its creation were quite pragmatic.

Now the UN is seen merely as a talking-shop, a forum for weak states to let off steam. Yet strong states also have a need for it. When it comes to the issue of putting together a national foreign policy, the public now expects a lot more from its highest officials than in past years. A major world power is less able to use the excuse that something can't be done than is possible for, say, a small African state. Yet, more often than not, as history shows, national objectives are hard to achieve through the blunt use of power alone. Case in point: dealing with terrorism.

An effective policy to counter terrorism must rest on comprehensive international action. Not just by Europe and the United States -- but by the whole international community. That can be done if the policy is seen to be fair and firm and not taken to brush over genuine political grievances. Only then can terrorism be curbed.

The UN Security Council may not appear to be the best mechanism for fixing things up between quarreling states, but it would be hard to draw up anything that looks stronger on paper. The main powers, the US, Soviet Union, China, Britain, and France, have a veto, and the rest of the membership is carefully elected to represent various world regions. Yet from the beginning, governments have played to the camera and acted out of narrow self-interest rather than undertaking the genuine hard bargaining that heads off conflicts.

Global peace requires global thinking. As a consequence, even the cameras have left as the Security Council's deliberations became less and less relevant. Its post-Libya raid meetings satisfied neither America nor its critics.

The planes over Libya were a reflection of our collective failure to build a contemporary means of conflict resolution. It is time we all took the UN Security Council seriously once again.

Sadruddin Aga Khan, a former UN high commissioner for refugees, is at present working to resolve international humanitarian issues.

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