Tue, 09 Nov 1999

The UN: An impartial institution?

By Omar Halim

JAKARTA (JP): In Article 24 of the UN Charter, member states confer upon the Security Council the "primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security".

For resolving disputes or conflicts, the preferred approach laid down in the charter is for the parties in any dispute to seek solution by "negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their choice" (Article 33).

If all peaceful means have been exhausted, and especially with respect to threats or breaches of the peace and acts of aggression, the charter provides for sanctions, such as an economic embargo. When such measures prove to be inadequate, it allows for actions to be taken by "air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security" (articles 41 and 42).

What factors constitute endangering "international peace and security"?

For example, during the Cold War, hostilities between Israel and any of its Arab neighbors could have spread to involve other Arab states and ultimately perhaps even the Soviet Union and the United States. It would have undoubtedly endangered international peace and security.

When the superpowers became concerned that there was a real danger of conflict escalation, they agreed to entrust the United Nations with establishing peacekeeping missions to buffer the military forces of Israel and its Arab neighbors. They included the UN Truce Supervision Organization (Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria), UN Emergency Force (Egypt and Israel), UN Disengagement Observer Force (Israel and Syria) and UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Israel and Lebanon). But the charter never perceived peacekeeping missions as part of the conflict resolution mechanism of the United Nations.

In the 1950s, using the provision of Article 40 of the charter, it was devised as a stopgap measure to maintain the cease-fire between the contending forces, pending the long-term resolution of the conflict itself.

The sacrosanct principle adopted in the missions is strict impartiality of the UN forces. On the other hand, in interstate conflict cases since nation states are capable in deciding on national policies and in controlling their forces on the ground, the peacekeeping forces have not faced major obstacles in fulfilling the mandate. Therefore, these missions have been relatively successful in performing their task.

In intrastate conflict cases, where the antagonists are political/military factions of a nation and not sovereign governments, the question is how would such conflict "endanger international peace and security"?

The interpretation of this by the UN Security Council had been broadened. In Haiti, the UN for the first time sent a mission to monitor an election that was completely organized by its government.

In Somalia, the UN Security Council authorized the dispatch of a multinational force, led by the United States, to provide humanitarian assistance to Somalians ravaged by inter-clan war. In dealing with intrastate conflict, the task of the UN mission becomes far more complex.

In the first place, the UN mission, being a foreign force operating within people of more or less the same ethnic origin, would find it difficult to differentiate among members of the antagonist groups. Contrary to a situation where the antagonist groups could be differentiated through their different uniforms, militia forces cannot be as easily distinguished. UN forces therefore could not be expected to separate rival militia forces, especially in a guerrilla warfare situation, and maintain peace and security. Peace could only be maintained by an agreement among, and genuine compliance by, the rival forces, monitored by the UN.

Those missions that were authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, that is with enforcement powers, the overwhelming military capability has proven to be no guarantee that the opposite side would be forced to submit. The NATO multinational forces, authorized by the UN Security Council, which operated in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo could restore and maintain peace and security, because the actor behind the Serb forces in the two regions could be clearly identified, held accountable and forced to comply with the demands of the international forces. The multinational force operating in Somalia did not have the same advantage, and failed to attain its objective.

But peacekeeping and enforcement action are not the only conflict resolution mechanisms the United Nations is supposed to use to maintain peace and security. The charter emphasizes mediation as a means to preserve peace and security (preventive diplomacy) or to restore peace and security (peacemaking).

Again, the picture of UN performance has been dismal. Earlier it was mentioned that the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations in the Middle East had been devised, the 1960s and the 1970s, as stopgap measures pending the long-term resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the Cold War, the United Nations was not entrusted by the two superpowers to mediate. After the end of the Cold War, it was the United States that had the clout to mediate between the Arab governments and Israel.

It should be noted that, despite a lot of consternation among the Arabs, President Sadat of Egypt was brave enough and willing to allow mediation with the United States in deriving a peace agreement with Israel in 1979.

The United Nations' same lack of success was shown in other cases, such as between India and Pakistan with the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), Cyprus and the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) and Bosnia-Herzegovina with the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR).

The International Conference on Former Yugoslavia which the United Nations, together with the European Union, organized in the early 1990s could be termed a failure. Even with impartiality strictly applied, the UN needed clout to succeed.

This could be in the form of strong military, political and economic power that could be used as deterrent or potential rewards to the antagonists, if they could be identified clearly. The United Nations does not have these powers.

Furthermore, with the exception of issues it has been dealing with for a long time, the United Nations is not well equipped to mediate in dealing with new issues.

Take East Timor as an example. Legality aside, why should Indonesia be negotiating with Portugal, the colonial power which initiated the division of Timor in the first place, in the forum of the United Nations and placing the former colonialist as the savior of the Timorese?

If the United Nations knew that Indonesia was not able to guarantee security -- and there was ample evidence -- why should the agreement pretend that the Indonesian government was able to do so, and thus jeopardize the lives and the welfare of the East Timorese who became the real victims of the disaster?

These are the results of formalities in the UN way of thinking. It does not absolve the grave and inexcusable mistake made by the previous Indonesian government, but the United Nations, assuming it knew of the real situation on the ground, did not need to go along with such false pretenses. The consequences for the Timorese have been devastating.

The United Nations only has the principle of impartiality that forms the base of its moral authority on the ground. It has proven to be extremely useful in resolving disputes and conflicts at the local level, e.g. in peacekeeping missions. But now even this impartiality has seemingly been lost.

During the Cold War the international political world was divided into two main camps of the United States and the Soviet Union, with the developing countries essentially as spectators or followers. The United Nations, which entrusted by the two poles to perform the function of acting as a buffer between the contending forces, had to adopt strict impartiality in dealing with the antagonists, who were the proteges of the two superpowers. Otherwise, the United Nations would be severely attacked.

After the end of the Cold War, when one superpower crumbled, politically speaking, the world has been dominated by the remaining pole. It now dominates the United Nations as well. The United Nations has become the tool to implement policies that are seen by this pole as appropriate for the world.

It was recognized by Australian Prime Minister John Howard that, in assuming its lead role in the International Force in East Timor (Interfet) authorized by the UN Security Council, Australia was assuming a subservient and surrogate role of the United States to restore peace and security in Southeast Asia.

In this sense, the United Nations has lost its significance as an impartial institution to all its members in maintaining or restoring peace and security around the world.

The writer was a senior staff member of the United Nations, serving in peacekeeping missions in Namibia, Lebanon, Somalia and Liberia. He also served as special envoy of the secretary-general of the United Nations to Armenia and Azerbaijan on the question of Nagorno-Karabakh and to Cameroon and Nigeria on the question of Bakassi Peninsula. He resides in Jakarta.