UPHEAVAL in Iraq coincided with natural disaster in Bangladesh. Famine and war in East Africa are expected to kill millions. Still other tragedies clamor for help. "Donor fatigue" is already limiting aid while, out of the spotlight, further calamities are building. What to do? On April 5, as the Kurdish crisis exploded, the United Nations Security Council quietly made history. It enunciated a principle tailored to this particular case, but which could be used in other emergencies as, or perhaps before, they occur. The council, in its Resolution 688, voted itself the right to intervene in Iraq. It demanded that Baghdad end the repression that made more than 2 million Kurds and Shiite Muslims flee their homes and allow immediate access by international relief organizations. Wes t
ern troops simply moved into northern Iraq to help and to protect the Kurds.
Last year, the Security Council intervened, most dramatically, when it authorized military operations against Iraq. But that was specifically covered by the UN Charter. The duty to meet aggression and to restore peace overrides the otherwise sacrosanct rule of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state. This time the council decided that a human tragedy with overtones of genocide was also a threat to international peace and security. In other words, grounds for UN intervention are now a
matter of interpretation.
The Security Council isn't about to plunge into domestic crises around the world. Some of its members have skeletons in their closets: for China, there's Tibet; for India, Kashmir; for the Soviet Union, dangerous ethnic strife and centrifugal confusion. Certainly the United States, Britain, and France would veto any effort to intrude into their affairs.
However, two trends have converged to put intervention in a new light. One is the world community's increasing willingness to give the UN a role in national as well as international problems. Human rights is no longer seen as a domestic matter. More than 20 years ago, economic sanctions were imposed on South Africa to end its policy of apartheid. The UN ensured Namibia's independence in freedom. The UN has monitored elections in Haiti and Nicaragua, will run a referendum in Western Sahara, and is mediat i
ng El Salvador's civil war.
The second trend responds to the nature and scale of the problems that confront the world. The cyclones and tidal waves that have devastated Bangladesh's coast are recurring events. Scores of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of the people whose lives were lost or homes destroyed should not have been living in a place of such predictable danger. But there was no other place for them in a country, smaller than Iowa, of 118 million inhabitants. The government, corrupt and incompetent under the pr e
vious dictatorship, had made next to no provision for protection or relief. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia also fit that description. There, famine may well take millions of lives.
Africa and other continents are studded with incipient catastrophes. Some quietly approach the bursting point with inexorably swelling populations outstripping their food and water resources. Others are at the mercy of tinhorn tyrants whose only competence lies in keeping themselves and their mafias in power while hunger and disease ravage their people.
One bizarre instance: The military regime in Burma, nominally Buddhist, is seizing land in the northwest and driving thousands of Muslim inhabitants as refugees to, of all places, Bangladesh. Large numbers of boat people are again fleeing Vietnam. And the International Labor Organization warns of an "irresistible surge from the south" as a declining standard of living and rising unemployment for the rapidly growing populations of Turkey and the North African countries increase pressure for migration to E
urope "in multiple forms."
Looking at today's panorama of adversity, some call for a worldwide relief coordinator. Others stress the necessity to anticipate, mitigate, even prevent the catastrophic consequences of human error. This would mean intervention such as the stationing of impartial monitors for early warning. Governments declared incompetent or aggressive would be replaced. (Right now, the UN, impatient with the dithering Cambodian government and three rebel factions, is considering imposing peace.)
To say that all this is revolutionary is to put it mildly. There is today no way of stretching Resolution 688 to cover the innumerable objections and to calm the legitimate concern about the misuse of such sweeping power. It might be done over time, in stages, as consensus is carefully developed.
The only thing clear, in light of disasters waiting to happen, is that the world community must start thinking about it. Now.