Give peace a fighting chance

The New Killing Fields - The Use of Force in UN Peace Operations
September 5, 2003

Margaret Anstee contemplates the complex issue of UN intervention.

These two books deal with issues that should concern all thinking citizens of this conflict-ridden world: how may conflict be resolved and conditions conducive to lasting and sustainable peace created? To what degree should there be outside intervention in sovereign countries to bring this about? And in what circumstances should force be used?

Both books were published in 2002, before the latest Gulf war, but the daunting problems that they address are peculiarly germane to the challenging aftermath of that conflict. They approach the subject from very different angles. The New Killing Fields is more accessible to the general reader, an edited collection comprising chapters by writers with first-hand experience of events in Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda and East Timor.

Trevor Findlay's book is a work of solid academic research enlivened by descriptions of incidents that severely tested the UN criteria for using force over the years: the UNEF 1, the peacekeeping mission set up in 1956 after the Suez Crisis; the Congo operation in 1960; Cyprus and Lebanon; and, post-cold war, the more complex conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, East Timor and Sierra Leone.

Findlay considers recent attempts to learn from these often-bitter lessons and develop a more coherent approach, though in his view these fall short of a "UN peace operations doctrine". This book should be required reading for all special representatives of the secretary-general and force commanders and should interest anyone wishing to understand the complexities and dilemmas of peacekeeping.

The contributors to The New Killing Fields all conclude that humanitarian intervention is essential when the lives of thousands of people are at risk. I have reservations about the frequent use of "failed states" as a term because of the difficulty of defining its precise meaning. "Failing states" is a better formulation and I concur with the finding that state fragmentation and collapse are the chief sources of human-rights abuses post-cold war. Chaos has replaced the tyranny that enabled such abuses to be perpetrated during the cold war without outside intervention. But the international record for redressing such ills in a less polarised, more interdependent world has been dismal, with horrifying consequences, such as the genocidal massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica.

William Shawcross's chapter on Cambodia shows that even where a moderate degree of short-term success can be claimed, the longer-term fall-out may still be reprehensible. As we are seeing in Afghanistan and Iraq, nation building requires much more than the ending of armed conflict. Shawcross rightly comments that "it is still hard, verging on the impossible, for the UN or other global bodies to make progress against the obduracy of autocrats, let alone of tyrants and mass murderers".

What, then, is the role of force in bringing about conditions propitious for sustainable peace? Findlay attributes to a fellow scholar the dictum first enunciated by Dag Hammarskjold: "Peacekeeping is not a soldier's job, but only a soldier can do it." It was Hammarskjold who laid down the three basic tenets of peacekeeping: consent, impartiality and minimum use of force (for self-defence only). The difficulties of adhering to them soon became apparent, notably in the Congo in 1960, the first example of a complex, intra-state conflict.

As Findlay rightly says, peacekeeping is a political undertaking requiring simultaneous and complementary actions on many fronts, diplomatic, economic and social, and humanitarian, as well as military. In the process, force must always be the last resort, when all avenues of negotiation and persuasion have been exhausted. But that requires some fine judgements.

Untimely and injudicious use of force may escalate further conflict and endanger the perception of impartiality, while failure to react to attacks can undermine a mission's credibility.

In Findlay's own words, "diplomacy without force against an adversary without scruples is useless", as was the case with Jonas Savimbi in Angola. Angola was also a human tragedy on a vast scale but it merits no mention here, and only glancing references in The New Killing Fields . The 1991-92 Angola peace process was doomed by the Security Council's desire for a "quick fix" and consequent decision to send a UN mission (UN Angola Verification Mission II) with a ludicrously weak mandate and inadequate resources. Ultimately, it fell to the Angolan government to defeat Savimbi using military means.

In discussing the performance of successive UN secretaries-general, Findlay reveals that the much-maligned Boutros Boutros Ghali tried several times to say "no" to proposed interventions that he considered inadvisable, undermanned and under-resourced but was overruled by the Security Council.

Findlay recognises the restrictions hemming in all secretaries-general, who can only strive to seek consensus on what seems acceptable to the Security Council. The member states, not the secretary-general or the secretariat, have the final word in determining UN policies. When, in 1999, Kofi Annan mooted humanitarian intervention to avoid the slaughter of innocent civilians, many states avoided strong objections, citing invasions of sovereignty.

Moreover, the Security Council is built on compromise and its mandates are often ambiguous and sometimes inoperable (for example, the declaration of "safe areas" in Bosnia, without the means to defend them that led to the Srebrenica massacre). Rarely does it show the political will to punish transgressors: it was years before effective sanctions were brought to bear on Savimbi and Unita after they returned to war in Angola.

Findlay identifies the grey area blurring the distinction between chapter VI of the UN Charter (envisaging the peaceful resolution of disputes) and chapter VII (permitting the use of force). This, and insufficiently clear "rules of engagement", have often caused difficulties of interpretation in the field and hesitations to act that have cost innumerable civilian lives.

He does not record that, since the reports issued on the Rwanda and Srebrenica in 2000, Security Council resolutions authorising peacekeeping missions under chapter VI now usually include an operative paragraph under chapter VII, authorising the use of force, not only in defence of the mission but also of endangered civilians.

A main drawback of the UN is that it does not have its own military force that it can put swiftly into action but has to rely on member states to contribute troops - a lengthy process with uncertain results, given different levels of training and equipment and divergent policies on the use of force. The blame for failing to act over Rwanda cannot be laid solely at the door of the UN secretariat: no member state was willing to send troops. In 1993, former US president Ronald Reagan called for a standing force (an "army of conscience") supported by the US; but that has never been the policy of any current US administration. Even former under-secretary general Brian Urquhart's more modest idea of a trained international volunteer force has proved too extreme for most member states.

All these difficulties have made it evident that the UN is not well equipped to deal with conflicts requiring peace enforcement under chapter VII. These have been increasingly entrusted to multinational forces, a "coalition of the willing", mandated by the Security Council, with the UN playing a complementary political and humanitarian role. But such arrangements, while more effective militarily, do not provide the coherent, multidimensional approach essential for resolving deep-rooted conflicts.

Under both Boutros Ghali and Annan, much has been done to improve UN peacekeeping, but there are limits to what can be achieved without greater political will on the part of member states to address the underlying structural problems that they alone can solve. Few would disagree with the statement in The New Killing Fields that US leadership is essential. September 11 2001 marked a watershed in US policy priorities, but it is crucial that these should be based on the realisation that terrorism cannot be defeated nor international stability ensured, so long as internecine conflicts and human-rights abuses abound unchecked.

Africa, where the worst examples occurred, has been low among US priorities. It is to be hoped that this will change after President George W. Bush's declarations during his July tour of Africa; Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo will be acid tests.

Dame Margaret Anstee is a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations, which she served from 1952 to 1993. She was the special representative of the secretary-general in Angola from 1992-93.

The New Killing Fields: Massacre and the Politics of Intervention

Editor - Nicolaus Mills and Kira Brunner
ISBN - 0 465 00803 8 and 00804 6
Publisher - Basic Books
Price - £19.99 and £12.99
Pages - 6

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