WITH the rescue of the Iraqi Kurds from the mountains along the Turkish border last year, hopes soared that a long-awaited "new international humanitarian order" had arrived. In the post-cold-war world, governments would no longer be allowed to abuse their citizens with impunity. An aroused international community would insist, by force if necessary, on access to vulnerable populations everywhere.
Today, any such new order seems to have died aborning. In Iraq the ranks of United Nations and other aid workers are thinning under Iraqi pressure. In Yugoslavia an estimated 3 million people have fled their homes or have been trapped by the fighting, with upward of 20,000 already killed. In Somalia the death toll from civil strife and famine already exceeds 30,000, with more than a million projected to die within six months.
Life after the cold war was not supposed to be like this. Has the situation changed much since the week in 1987 when a relief convoy bound for Tigre was ambushed in northern Ethiopia, Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand were shelled by guerrillas, countless civilians were killed in the Iran-Iraq war, and the president of El Salvador's human rights commission was assassinated? In fact, while great loss of life continues, the broad outlines of an improved humanitarian system are emerging.
First, the humanitarian system of the future must be more multilateral in character. The portrayal in the United States of the recent standoff at the Iraqi agriculture ministry as a test of wills between Saddam Hussein and George Bush simply confirms the Iraqi view, shared by many of America's friends as well, that UN policies are little more than US foreign policy writ large. Effective international humanitarian and political strategies require the moral authority of decisions vetted in a more represent ative Security Council, not simply handed down from Washington.
SECOND, the UN needs a more versatile array of diplomatic, economic, and military instruments. In Iraq, Yugoslavia, and Somalia the stakes are so high and the options so limited in part because of a lack of attention to smoldering conflicts. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's recent "Agenda for Peace," which envisions expanded UN roles in preventive diplomacy and peacekeeping, and his appointment of an under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, are positive developments.
Third, new humanitarian arrangements must assure greater equity. "The principles of the [UN] Charter must be applied consistently, not selectively," said the secretary-general in his report, contrasting neglect of Somalia with attention to "the rich man's war" in the former Yugoslavia. The benchmark of a better system will be the health and welfare not just of populations in high-profile settings, but of Somalis, Liberians, and Palestinians. The world must deal with more than one major crisis at a time, and with reasonable proportionality to the suffering involved.
Fourth, a more humane world requires more effective performance by the agencies that are already working energetically to aid and protect vulnerable populations. Of what value is hard-won relief access if programs flounder once people are reached? A just-released evaluation of UN activities in the Gulf crisis found serious problems of coordination and effectiveness both among various UN agencies and between them and other aid efforts. Recent efforts to improve the delivery and coordination of assistance are only modest first steps in addressing such problems.
The world has the resources to address conflicts before they become full-blown crises, to respond to emergencies in ways that do not create more suffering than they alleviate, and to protect and assist the world's vulnerable populations. Rather than confirm the defeatist view that carnage is inevitable and unstoppable, today's bloodshed should become the engine of more energetic, creative, and successful humanitarian action.