Cambodia, Yugoslavia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Congo, Liberia, Rwanda. Now, Darfur. After each genocide or major atrocity, everyone promises: "Never again." But mass murder has happened again, and yet again. The time to stop it has come.
Here's how: Establish a permanent United Nations Emergency Service and base it, until needed, at a UN-designated site, ready with mobile field headquarters to quell an atrocity within 48 hours after UN authorization. Because it would be permanent, it would not suffer from current delays in setting up an ad hoc force. Because it would be made up of volunteers from around the world, it would not be held back by the chronic reluctance of UN members to deploy their own national units in risky situations.
A 12,000- to 15,000-member Emergency Service could be expertly trained and coherently organized, so it would not fail due to a lack of skills, equipment, cohesiveness, experience in resolving conflicts, or gender, national, or religious imbalance. It would be an integrated service encompassing civilian, police, judicial, military, and relief personnel prepared to conduct all necessary functions in complex emergencies, so it would not lack the specialized professionals essential to succeed in peace operations. There would be no confusion about the chain of command, which would be headed by a designee of the UN secretary-general with the approval of the Security Council.
In the past, even when the Security Council has been able to agree on authorizing a peace operation, three to six months often pass before a force is fully in position. In similar cases in the future, the proposed Emergency Service could make a big difference. Moreover, once a permanent UN force is established and earns a reputation for effectiveness, it would be easier for the Security Council to agree to deployments because council members would not face new start-up costs, complicating delays, and the danger of putting their own national units at risk (or the embarrassment of voting for a force and then not contributing to it).
Because the UN has lacked the capacity to move promptly in the past, millions of innocent people have been killed and millions more wounded. Genocidal frenzies have forced tens of millions from their homes, destroyed entire economies, and wasted hundreds of billions of dollars.
If the UN Security Council had previously established an emergency service, the thousands of people now being killed in Darfur and the 2 million who have fled their homes would probably still be alive and well and living in their communities.
The service could protect families in secured villages against marauding warriors bent on "ethnic cleansing." It could gather evidence of crimes against humanity and arrest those committing them. It could hold detainees in a rights-sensitive international penal system until they can be indicted and tried by a tribunal operating under international standards of due process. The service also could begin emergency humanitarian assistance to victims fleeing previous raids, and provide security for humanitarian workers.
The UN Emergency Service would, for the first time in history, offer an immediate, comprehensive, internationally legitimate response to crisis.
Although the emergency force would cost an estimated $2 billion to establish, with an annual recurring cost of $900 million, those expenses are far lower than the costs likely to occur if conflicts are allowed to spiral out of control.
According to data from the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict and from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, the international community spent approximately $200 billion in seven major interventions in the 1990s. It could have saved an estimated $130 billion of that expenditure with a more effective preventive approach.
Leaders from some progressive national governments, human rights organizations, religious groups, and surviving members of victimized families around the world are calling for a rapid-deployment capability to protect the innocent from future atrocities. Yet because not enough governments have answered this call, members of civil society must press governments now to establish this UN Emergency Service.
It could curtail violence in divided societies, deflect venomous attacks between those of different ethnicities and religious traditions, end a culture of impunity, encourage the concentration of scarce resources on meeting human needs rather than on harming one's neighbors, and bring an energizing focus to the meaning of human security. It could produce monumental benefits in lives saved, mothers and daughters protected against grievous violations, families still able to live at home, time and money never spent to kill and destroy, tolerance maintained, laws upheld, and communities at peace.
Finally, we could give genuine meaning to "never again."
• Robert C. Johansen is senior fellow at the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies and professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.