The U.N. Must Abandon Its New Military Role

Michael Clough is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Last Wednesday, United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali denounced the international community for not sending troops to end the fighting in Rwanda, where an estimated 200,000 people have died. He was right to condemn world leaders for their inaction, but wrong to believe that a U.N. peacekeeping force is--or was--the answer. Quite the contrary. The efforts of Boutros-Ghali and others to expand the military role of the United Nations are partly to blame for the failure of the international community to develop effective ways to prevent such violent conflicts as is in Rwanda.

The root cause of the problem is the belief that the end of the Cold War opens the door for the United Nations to take on ever more responsibility for international peace and security. This ambition is an article of faith among a small but outspoken group of internationalists who regard the U.N. Charter as a sacred text that was regularly defiled by superpower antics during the Cold War. It was also fostered by world leaders, especially by former President George Bush, who see the world body as a convenient way to conceal unilateral desires beneath a cloak of international legitimacy (as happened in the case of the Gulf War) and to shift responsibility for troublesome conflicts in non-strategic places to others (as happened in the case of Angola). Finally, the new role was embraced by many relief and human-rights organizations that saw it as a means to transform the body into a vehicle for humanitarian intervention.

Unfortunately, the results of U.N. military adventures have been disastrous. The Bush Administration's cynical manipulation of the Security Council during the Gulf conflict has greatly increased distrust of the United Nations in many Third World countries. The misguided humanitarian intervention in Somalia has created a general reluctance to get involved in other conflicts. The U.N.'s role in military decisions regarding Bosnia has complicated and endangered the organization's humanitarian operations there and weakened the credibility of NATO threats to deter Serbian aggression. Now, disagreements over U.N. military-deployment plans and a lack of troop commitments have become an excuse for inaction in Rwanda.

Some analysts contend these problems can be solved by a series of reforms, among them, adding new permanent members to the Security Council; strengthening the U.N. Secretariat's ability to plan and supervise military operations; creating a standing U.N. military force, and establishing criteria for humanitarian intervention under Chapter Seven of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes military action in response to threats to international peace and security. This is wishful thinking. Few of these reforms are likely to be approved by the U.N. membership. Even if they were, it is doubtful that they would produce the outcome their proponents covet.

The effective use of force requires a degree of consensus and resolve that the Security Council can only muster in extreme circumstances. The Gulf War and intervention in Somalia were the exceptions that proved the rule. In both instances, without American leadership, the United Nations would not have acted --or been able to act--in the ways it did. None of the reforms now being recommended would change this reality.

But even if a significant U.N. military capability could be created, it would be a mistake to move down this path. If an attempt were made to use such a force to stop the fighting in Rwanda, or Angola, or any of the other civil wars now raging, it would risk involving the United Nations in protracted guerrilla wars. To believe otherwise would require a naive faith that the parties to these conflicts would be prepared to give up their objectives and bow to U.N. demands without a fight. At the same time, it would be equally naive to believe that a U.N. force would have any more success in ending civil wars than the United States had in Vietnam.

Just as important, military intervention would make it impossible for U.N. officials to maintain the impartiality that is usually essential to the success of diplomatic mediation efforts and humanitarian-relief operations. These are the areas where the United Nations has achieved most of its greatest successes. As we have seen in Bosnia, however, once the Security Council approves military actions, U.N. mediators and relief workers lose the shield of neutrality.

What can be done? The Clinton Administration has taken a series of steps in the right direction. A presidential directive earlier this month establishes criteria that will greatly restrict the kinds of peacekeeping operations Washington will support. One result is that the Administration has been reluctant to back deployment of soldiers in Rwanda. But it has not gone far enough.

Over the long run, the only kind of policy that is likely to succeed is one that combines a blanket prohibition against U.N. military intervention in combat situations with serious efforts to bolster the non-military operations of the United Nations to head off violent conflict and alleviate human suffering.

It may be necessary for the United States and other countries to intervene for humanitarian reasons in conflicts such as Rwanda. And, over time, it may be possible for regional organizations to develop the military capabilities and decision-making structures needed for intervention. But these interventions are likely to be far more timely and successful if the United Nations is not involved. For example, the only opportunity to stop the violence in Rwanda through armed action was probably in the first hours after Rwandan government forces began to slaughter their opponents in Kigali. If the United States, France and Belgium had been willing to send troops in then, they probably could have prevented the killing from reaching such horrific proportions. Waiting for Security Council authorization would scuttle any such undertaking. As it is, the idea that such interventions are a U.N. responsibility provides a convenient rationale for Washington and other powers to stay on the sidelines.

Rather than decry the international community's failure to support his calls for military action in Rwanda, Boutros-Ghali should direct his attention to developing ways to prevent future Rwandas. One would be to push for the creation of an international criminal court that would be responsible for investigating crimes against humanity and gross human-rights violations. If such a court were created and its decisions accepted and enforced by the world's governments, it would provide a significant deterrent against the kinds of atrocities occurring in Rwanda.

In addition, the Boutros-Ghali should take the lead in calling on the United Nations and all other international organizations to bar any government that comes to power through violence or commits gross human-rights abuses from receiving international assistance. Finally, he should devote greater effort to getting the international community to focus on the deteriorating situation in countries like Kenya and Zaire, which are already sliding down the same slippery slope that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in Rwanda and Somalia.

These measures will not produce quick results, nor will they end the fighting in Rwanda. But they would help to create the kind of political environment that will discourage future slaughters and make military intervention unnecessary. By contrast, another quixotic U.N. military operation would only set the stage for more disasters.*

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