In the past few weeks, the UN's inability to fulfill a variety of security roles has been the subject of major debate among policymakers and commentators around the globe.
One failure the UN would do well to reflect on is its virtual abandonment of the peoples of Azerbaijan and Armenia and its failure to play a constructive role in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between the two that raged through the early 1990s, killing 35,000 and leaving a legacy today of more than 1 million refugees - 800,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians.
The conflict emerged in 1988 when Armenia began to lobby for annexation of the mostly Armenian Nargorno-Karabakh region in neighboring Azerbaijan. Ten years ago this spring, when the war escalated, creating tens of thousands of Azerbaijani refugees in a matter of days, the UN Security Council passed a series of resolutions aimed at stopping it. More resolutions were passed in 1993 after the fall of Agdam and other Azerbaijani cities created hundreds of thousands more refugees. These UN resolutions demanded the "immediate complete and unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces" from Azerbaijani territories and expressed "grave concern at the displacement of large numbers of civilians in the Azerbaijani Republic and at the serious humanitarian emergency in the region."
Despite the resolutions, the region has languished as more than 1 million refugees remain uprooted, and one-fifth of Azerbaijani territory remains occupied by Armenia.
The UN and other external actors have done very little to promote resolution of this conflict. The Azerbaijani plight seems below the radar of international attention simply because the Azerbaijanis have resisted employing violence. Those who trust the laws and institutions of the international system and wait patiently for resolution of their plight seem to be neglected.
With the 10th anniversary of the unfulfilled UN resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh coming up, a group of concerned researchers at Harvard approached UN officials to enlist renewed efforts to resolve the conflict. The standard response has been that Iraq is all-consuming and that the UN delegated the matter in 1992 to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which later became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). While it is clearly convenient for the UN to pass the ball to this organization, the OSCE had no experience in conflict resolution and no mechanism for enforcing its policies. And simply enlisting the OSCE in support of conflict resolution doesn't absolve the UN from its obligation to promote its own resolutions.
The US could benefit much from promoting a settlement. Though its people are predominantly Shiite Muslim, Azerbaijan is staunchly secular - and it could play a role in strengthening moderate Muslim forces and solidifying US relations with them.
Moreover, because Azerbaijan is sandwiched between Turkey, Iran, and Russia, a US hand in resolving the conflict would be a strategic opportunity to consolidate its presence in the volatile region, and could serve as an important example of US efforts to promote the rights of Muslim populations.
There are reasons for optimism and renewed activity right now. The US and Russia are interested in cooperating on a solution to the conflict. Europe, too, is taking an interest in contributing to the conflict's resolution. Oil development in Azerbaijan is now hitting its stride with growing flows to the international market, and the region has a shot at economic recovery if peace prevails. Deep-seated ethnic hatred is, in fact, minimal in both Armenia and Azerbaijan because both sides tend to remember decades of peaceful life together in the Caucasus and not just their recent strife. Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders have met frequently to discuss resolution of this conflict and on a number of occasions have come close to signing comprehensive agreements.
The international community should get the ball rolling again and solve this conflict. The UN should straightaway formulate a plan to activate the peace process, and attention by the media and others should be paid to this issue in order to mobilize world leaders to devote resources to solving it. The leaders of Azerbaijan and Armenia should continue to meet frequently and maintain their leadership role in the pursuit of peace in the Caucasus.
• Brenda Shaffer is research director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard University. She is the author of 'Borders and Brethren: Iran and the Challenge of Azerbaijani Identity.'