UN in the Wars

Michael Howard

  • The Evolution of UN Peacekeeping: Case Studies and Comparative Analysis edited by William Durch
    St Martin’s, 509 pp, £29.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 312 06600 7

‘Peacekeeping’ as such was almost unheard of when the United Nations was established in 1945. Certainly it found no place in the original UN Charter. Peace, it was then assumed, would be maintained by settling disputes peacefully, and for that the UN would provide good offices under Chapter VI. ‘Threats to peace’ would come from overt acts of aggression such as were fresh in the minds of all who assembled in San Francisco to draft the Charter in April 1945, and for these Chapter VII made provision. They would be dealt with either by economic and other ‘sanctions’ of the kind that had been unsuccessfully attempted against Italy during the Abyssinia crisis of 1935, or by joint military action such as the League of Nations had so disastrously failed to take in time against Nazi Germany. For that, the wartime Grand Alliance would be reactivated under the aegis of a Military Committee which would effectively be the wartime Combined Chiefs of Staff under another name.

If the events of the Thirties had simply repeated themselves, the world would have been well equipped to deal with them. Five years later, when North Korea invaded its southern neighbour, such a repeat seemed imminent, and in the temporary absence of a dissenting Soviet Union the machinery creaked into action. Nearly forty years later, Saddam Hussein did the international community a remarkable favour by providing a textbook case of aggression at one of those rare moments when the major powers had not only the capacity but the unanimous will to deal with it. But the years between presented the world with an entirely different set of problems for which the Charter gave little, if any guidance.

When the Charter was drafted, it was assumed that the world would continue to consist of stable and sovereign powers, some more law-abiding than others, but all in full control of their own destinies and so capable of creating, observing and enforcing a rule of law. But even in 1914 that stability had been in doubt. War had then broken out, not so much in consequence of textbook aggression, as because of fears that Austria-Hungary was on the verge of disintegration as a result of the turbulent and frustrated nationalism of the Balkan peninsula, which had already brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In 1945 the disintegration of even greater empires was imminent, and as they fell apart they sparked off conflicts all over the world.

It was with these that the UN was initially called on to deal. In the Netherlands East Indies, in French Indochina, in the Indian subcontinent, above all in the former British mandate of Palestine, successor regimes fought the former colonial power or each other for international recognition and territorial control. When circumstances were propitious, they could be persuaded to acquiesce in temporary settlements made acceptable thanks to monitoring by small and unarmed UN observation teams. Such measures were reasonably effective so long as the parties concerned found it convenient for peace to be kept, and that was how ‘peacekeeping’ began.

The role of the UN then gradually expanded. In 1956 a United Nations force was introduced into Egypt to enable the British and French to make a graceful retreat from their last, disastrous imperial adventure, and to interpose between the belligerent Israelis and Egyptians: the forerunner of even less happy commitments on Israel’s northern frontiers. In 1963, in the wake of another post-imperial disintegration, a UN force was introduced into Cyprus to prevent Greeks and Turks from tearing each other apart, with the mandate not only to ‘use its best efforts to prevent recurrence of the fighting’, but ‘as necessary, to contribute to the maintenance and restoration of law and order and a return to normal conditions’. Allied pressure on the warring parties made this feasible, and a decade later the Turkish invasion further reduced the UN function to the kind of interposition familiar in the Middle East. But an almost simultaneous intervention, that in the Congo in 1962, had a less peaceful outcome. There the UN was saddled with a whole multiplicity of missions: first, to enable the Belgians to withdraw without leaving behind chaos; then to help the successor regime get onto its feet; and finally, when that regime collapsed, to take over the government of the country and prevent it from falling apart. And it had to do this with a Security Council divided among a hostile Soviet Union and France, a reluctant Britain, and a United States that viewed the entire enterprise through the spectacles of the Cold War.

Ultimately the intervention can be said to have succeeded. A united Zaire (of a kind) did eventually emerge. But there was a universal determination, not least in the UN Secretariat, that the United Nations should never again get involved in a comparable enterprise. The fate of Dag Hammarskjöld was an awful warning to his successors. Twenty-five years were to pass before the UN undertook any further serious peacekeeping obligations outside the Middle East, from which it was virtually impossible to dissociate itself.

Then at the end of the Eighties a new era dawned, bringing with it new opportunities and new tasks. The good news was that the Cold War came to an end and with it the stasis that had long paralysed the Security Council. The bad news was that a new wave of post-imperial disorder broke over the world as the superpowers relinquished control over their satellites. The former rivals turned to the UN to help them liquidate their obligations and invited it onto hitherto forbidden territory – the Soviet Union into Afghanistan in 1988 to monitor their withdrawal, the United States into Nicaragua in 1989 and El Salvador three years later to monitor the first free elections that had been permitted in those unhappy countries. In 1989 UN task forces were sent to help bind up the wounds on more distant Cold War battlefields in Namibia and Angola: to monitor the cease-fire and oversee the withdrawal of Cuban and South African forces and the holding of free elections. In 1991 they began the same task in Cambodia. With unanimity in the Security Council and acquiescence among most of the parties concerned, the UN did on the whole a highly competent job, and greatly enhanced its reputation. It was building a respectable record, not only for peacekeeping, but for peace-building, and seemed set fair to continue doing so.

All this is well described in the volume under review, produced under the auspices of the Stimson Foundation in Washington, and highly recommended as a brief but thorough and very intelligent guide. It describes not only what the UN did, but how it did it: how its task forces were put together (always ad hoc), how they were controlled (usually chaotically), and how they were financed (always inadequately). The earlier enterprises were improvised out of the office of the Secretary General; the more recent have been at the mercy of clumsy and competing branches of a huge bureaucracy. Their heroes have been the men on the spot, objects of hostility and suspicion to those they are trying to help and the victims of conflicting orders from their superiors, if they received any at all. But the cumulative experience has made some things clear. First, any UN task force must be given a clear mandate, unanimously supported by the Security Council; second, it must operate with the consent, or at the very least the acquiescence, of the rival forces on the spot; and finally it must not take sides, or be seen to be taking sides, in the conflict that it is seeking to appease. None of those conditions has been met in Bosnia.

The Stimson volume was obviously completed by 1992, and the editor was able to add only a brief epilogue dealing with Cambodia, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia. But in that year UN activities increased fivefold: from 11,000 police and military personnel deployed at the beginning of the year, the number rose to over 52,000, with costs increasing accordingly. This was largely because of the heavy additional obligations that the UN assumed in Somalia and Bosnia. In both, its original function was the distribution and protection of humanitarian relief – a task imposed on it by governments responding to pressure from a public appalled by the scenes brought to them, night after night, on their television screens. But in Somalia UN forces quickly found themselves in a situation unpleasantly reminiscent of the Congo. In the absence of any governmental infrastructure, they had either to accept the authority of competing warlords and negotiate with them such facilities as they could obtain, or else to impose order themselves. The former course involved acquiescing in a degree of corruption and oppression that the Americans, in particular, considered intolerable. The latter has been implemented largely by a policy of retaliatory air strikes against perceived ‘bad guys’, which, in the view of some other UN contingents, has escalated the conflict, turned the UN itself into a belligerent party and made their humanitarian function yet more difficult. Old UN hands may recall the Congo, but at least some Americans must be remembering their experience in the Lebanon in 1983, when, having become equally involved in the local disputes and suffering heavy losses in consequence, they had to stage a humiliating withdrawal.

The Somalian situation is simplicity itself compared with the situation the UN faces in Bosnia. There it has had to carry out its humanitarian tasks while a triangular conflict rages, between parties not ready even for UN peacekeeping offices, let alone for the enforcement of a peaceful order that would make humanitarian relief marginal. Whereas in Somalia the United States has provided leadership almost to excess, in Bosnia they have quite deliberately withheld it, and the European Community has proved incapable of taking their place. The Security Council may no longer be divided by the old rivalries of the Cold War, but it is almost equally paralysed by disagreements between the United States and its European allies as to what ought to be done. As for the other conditions laid down for a successful intervention, it cannot be said that the UN has no clear mandate. The trouble is that it has several, that they are mutually contradictory, and make it impossible for UN forces to avoid taking sides.

The task of which the television-viewing public in the West is most immediately conscious is, of course, the obligation to bring humanitarian relief to deprived and suffering civilians, especially the citizens of such cities as Sarajevo and Mostar. But about such relief one important and unpleasant point has to be made. In certain kinds of war, the hardships inflicted on civilians are not just incidental. They are deliberate and calculated. Any attempt to alleviate them, however well-intentioned, involves virtual participation in the war. The classic example of this deliberate brutalisation of civilian property, if not actually civilian lives, was Sherman’s march through Georgia in 1864-65 during the American Civil War. That was a deliberate attempt to cause deprivation and suffering of a kind which, had CNN cameras been rolling at the time, would have provoked in Europe an instant clamour for international intervention. ‘War is cruelty,’ was Sherman’s answer to complaints, ‘and you cannot refine it ... You might as well appeal against the thunderstorm as against these terrible hardships of war.’ The same thought, though few stated it so frankly, was in the minds of national leaders who attempted in the First World War to starve and in the Second to bomb the populations of their adversaries into submission. Those, after all, were the people whose support made the war possible. The more they suffered, the more insistently were they likely to urge that the war should be ended. To alleviate those sufferings would strengthen their morale and enable them to go on fighting. There was always an easy way of bringing the torment to an end: they only had to surrender.

That has been particularly the situation in siege warfare. While provision has always existed in the laws of war for the peaceful evacuation of non-combatant bouches inutiles, it has always been at the discretion of the commander of the besieging force whether this should be allowed to happen. The permission granted to the UN by the Bosnian Serbs to send supplies into Sarajevo and evacuate wounded civilians is, historically speaking, unusual if not exceptional. Such relief prolongs both the will and the capacity of the population to resist. Its provision, especially at a moment when UN sanctions are imposing considerable hardship on the population of Serbia, can only be seen in Belgrade as an alignment by the UN on the side of its adversaries, and an abandonment of the neutral status on which its effectiveness in peacekeeping must rest.

To some extent, indeed, the UN has already taken sides. It has moved from action under Chapter VI of the Charter, provision of good offices for the peaceful resolution of disputes, to the enforcement provisions of Chapter VII; first by economic sanctions against Serbia, and the threat, if not yet the use of actual force against the Bosnian Serb armies. To intervene in a civil war in this overt fashion at the behest of an outraged world community may be both desirable and legitimate. But it makes little sense to do so at a moment when the UN is also attempting, not only to bring non-partisan humanitarian relief to cities besieged by the forces against whom it is intervening, but also, under the terms of Chapter VI, to broker an acceptable peace settlement in Geneva – a settlement that must be acceptable to all warring parties if it is not to unravel as soon as the UN forces withdraw. The UN is thus faced in Bosnia with the identical dilemma that confronts it in Somalia. It can fulfil its humanitarian function only by either remaining above the battle and coming to terms with the authorities, however brutal and illegitimate, who exercise de facto control on the ground; or by using force to attain its objective, thus becoming a party to the conflict and a legitimate target for its adversaries. Further, by thus intervening to determine the military outcome, it tacitly assumes responsibility for maintaining whatever settlement its armed intervention has enforced.

Both episodes provoke the question whether, in the absence of a very much wider mandate, the UN is the most appropriate vehicle for humanitarian relief. Either such relief should be left to expert professional and non-political bodies, who should be provided with the necessary resources and facilities to carry on their work; or, if local political circumstances make it impossible for them to operate but public opinion still demands intervention, this should take the form of a military operation with the explicit objective of restoring or creating such political order as is essential to make relief possible. The electorates who insist on action being taken should then be made thoroughly aware that there will be a price to be paid for their compassion, if necessary in the lives of their own countrymen.

The simultaneous imbroglios in Bosnia and Somalia may, like the Congo operation, induce in the international community a deep reluctance to get its fingers burned again. Even if it does, however, the proliferation of trouble-spots throughout the world, the public sensitivity to them as a result of media publicity, and the reluctance even of the strongest powers to deal with them unilaterally, is likely to maintain public demand that the UN should ‘do something’, even when Realpolitik might dictate that the unfortunate parties concerned be left to stew in their own juice at whatever price in human misery, as they are being left to do at present in Liberia, Angola, East Timor and other areas to which the media find it inconvenient to give attention. But if the UN is to be the guardian of international order and the public conscience, it must be given better tools with which to act, and its remit should be explicitly extended from ‘peacekeeping’ (with its associated activity of ‘peace-building’ as in Namibia or Cambodia) to ‘peace-enforcement’.

This is what the Secretary General has demanded, specifically in his manifesto of June 1992, An Agenda for Peace. There he proposed that consent by the host state should no longer be a requisite for peacekeeping operations, and that UN forces might be deployed without the express consent of the parties to the dispute. Those forces should be armed as necessary to deal with resistance and available for rapid intervention. Mr Boutros Ghali did not go so far as Sir Brian Urquhart, whose experience in this field is unrivalled and who has called, in the New York Review of Books, for a directly recruited UN legion that could be deployed without all the delays and reluctance attached to the commitment of national forces. The Secretary General demanded only appropriately trained and equipped national forces to be available for immediate deployment. The United States Government, for one, has made it clear that this is as far as it is prepared to go. Even if a UN legion were recruited and trained (and the problem of its ethnic balance, to name only one of its difficulties, would be formidable) the political decision to commit it, not in a peacekeeping but in a ‘peace-enforcement’ role would remain highly controversial, and there would be many who would see it as a praetorian guard for the Secretary General. But as a fire-brigade available for immediate action, involving no necessary long-term commitment and giving time for more serious intervention to be contemplated, there is surely much to be said for the idea.

Whatever happens in Bosnia, UN forces will have to remain, with the consent of the parties concerned, to help keep such peace as is ultimately agreed, even if it is only a peace – as seems increasingly likely – of virtual surrender. In that limited role, the UN has proved its value. UNPROFOR may be deployed along the ethnically-cleansed frontiers of the new Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia as usefully and as permanently as UNMOGIP in Kashmir, UN-FICYP in Cyprus, and UNIFIL in Lebanon. If in future it is required to do any more than that, both its powers and its power must be substantially increased; but the world will have to recognise that there are some problems, however agonising, that even an empowered United Nations will remain powerless to solve. When two communities are armed to the teeth and determined to fight one another, the only peace that the UN will ever be competent to enforce will be a peace of exhaustion.