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PEACE in Action

Using Multi-Track Diplomacy to Deal With Ethnic Conflict


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Policies for International Peace
The UN is more than Blue Helmets

The United Nations was established in the aftermath of the most destructive war in history, a war which cost more than 50 million lives, the dislocation and maiming of millions more, and inestimable physical damage. The United Nations was to be the world's vehicle to, in the opening words of its Charter, "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." For the more than half-century of its existence, as its membership increased from an initial 51 nations in 1945 to 189 today, the world body has pursued this goal.

The UN membership has increased from 51 in 1945 to 192 in 2004

Since the establishment of the Untied Nations, there has not been another world war. The major reason given by historians for this happy state is the policy of "mutually assured destruction" adopted by the two superpowers of the Cold War era, the United States and the Soviet Union. However, the United Nations is also entitled to credit. The UN's spirit of peace and cooperation was formally subscribed to by both nations, and the UN's fora put both countries under a global magnifying glass and provided opportunities for them to "blow off steam" verbally rather than clashing with bombs and bullets.

Yet, the world has not known peace! There have been more than 100 smaller wars during this period. Initially, these were principally between nations disputing territorial issues. In the last few years, however, these have been primarily between ethnic and other groups or between groups pursuing what they believe to be their denied rights and their governments. So far, all of these "small" wars, which have taken place in the poorer and less stable parts of the world, have been limited in their scope. In aggregate, however, they are estimated to have cost some five million lives, maimed countless people, and driven millions more from their homes.

The UN has played an important role in putting out these fires. In all, it has mounted 53 peacekeeping operations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America (including 15 that are still active). The results of these operations have been spotty. Partly as a consequence, the UN's peacekeeping role has become highly controversial, especially in the United States where a small but influential ultra-nationalistic-cum-isolationist minority in Congress has opposed what it sees as an incipient threat posed by the world body to American sovereignty.

80% of UN resources are used to prevent and remove threats to peace

While the maintenance of peace is the UN's raison d'etre and primary role, the employment of military force is not the sole means of achieving that objective. Keeping the peace is a complex, multifaceted undertaking. Article I of the UN charter recognized this by calling on the organization to "take effective collective measures for the prevention [italics added] and removal of threats to peace." The Charter's preamble mandates the United Nations to foster a law-abiding, prospering community of nations by promoting "fundamental human rights," establishing "conditions under which justice and respect for…international law can be maintained," and promoting "social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom."

Due to its inherent drama, which has been magnified by the advent of instant television news coverage, the UN soldier's blue helmet has come to symbolize peacekeeping and to define the United Nations in the eyes of the world. Yet, some 80 percent of the organization's resources are devoted to these other mandates. Although they are less sensational, these other mandates not only contribute to peacekeeping, but are vital in their own right and as implementors of the "prevention and removal of threats to peace" mandate in the Charter preamble.

The UN is mandated to promote human rights and international law

For example, the UN's role in promoting human rights has been critical in ending the oppression of citizens by a number of governments. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) monitors the status of respect for human rights around the world, reports on violations, and uses moral suasion to get offending governments to change their behavior.

Like all UN organs other than the Security Council, UNHCHR does not have the authority to require governments to take action on its findings. The annual meetings of the UN Human Rights Commission, an intergovernmental body that meets in Geneva, Switzerland to review the performance of individual countries, have been instrumental (albeit with some notable exceptions) in raising the standards of behavior by governments toward their citizens.

The promotion of international law, which is implicit in everything the United Nations stands for and does, is also a critical UN responsibility. The International Court of Justice, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, is specifically charged with the judicial aspects of this mandate of the world body. Composed of 15 justices from as many countries, the Court hears disputes between nations which agree to submit them for adjudication. However, its writ is also limited because it cannot impose either its jurisdiction or its decisions upon UN member governments.

This curious state of affairs, where governments establish organizations to serve their common needs but are not obliged to respect their decisions, is perhaps the greatest hindrance to the UN's effectiveness and the realization of the ideals of its Charter.

Another UN judicial body, the International Criminal Court (ICC), will soon take its place beside the World Court, mandated to try individuals accused of war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The court will fill a long-felt gap in the international justice system; it will go a long way toward allowing the world body to carry out one of its most important roles.

However, it too is prime example of the limits imposed on the United Nations by the doctrine of state sovereignty. For example, the United States has declared its opposition to the court on the grounds that Americans should be exempted from the court's jurisdiction, an exception that would fatally flaw the institution. Moreover, a bill has been introduced in Congress that would "punish" other nations that sign the treaty establishing the court by cutting off US military aid to them.

The UN's mandate to promote social and economic progress is well known in the developing world

The UN's mandate to promote social progress and higher standards of living is least known in the United States and other affluent nations. Yet, it is perhaps the best known of all the UN's role in the developing world where some four-and-a-half billion people interact with the United Nations on a daily basis. In many ways, promoting economic and social development is the most complex and far-reaching of the world body's tasks.

One of its major aspects involves assisting the developing nations to acquire the intellectual infrastructure (skills, knowledge, technology) that they require to galvanize their economies and enable their people to achieve better lives. Another important activity is to establish minimum and model technical standards of behavior for all nations, including the more affluent ones, in fields as diverse as aviation, labor, agriculture, industry, and telecommunications, in order to enable them to function effectively and equitably in relation to one another.

Until the end of the cold war the UN mandates were implemented individually

The UN also leads and coordinates global undertakings to enable all nations to address problems that affect them commonly, e.g. the World Health Organization has led an effort that resulted in the eradication of smallpox, and is leading the current effort to address the AIDS pandemic. Another UN task is to monitor and keep the world informed about the status of global economic and social well being, thereby enabling nations to make rational decisions on the allocation of their scarce resources.

Throughout the UN's first five decades, the organization's various mandates were essentially conceived of and implemented separately from one another. Until the end of the Cold War and well into the 1990's, this compartmentalized approach was seen, possibly by force of habit, as the best way to address the world's problems. The major danger to global peace was perceived to be the thread of world war posed by the rivalry between the superpowers for global primacy; therefore, the appropriate UN response was seen by its governing member states to be political and thus in the realm of the Security Council.

Even as the United Nations was seized with Cold War issues, it was responding, nevertheless, to the development needs of the poorest countries of the world. However, the countries' needs, while desperate in their own terms, were not seen at the time to pose a threat to global peace. Therefore, the means to resolve these problems were seen as economic and technical, rather than political, and the UN implementing actors were the Economic and Social Council and the specialized agencies and other technical bodies that were established throughout the UN system to deal with economic and social issues (see box on page 20).

Thus, in 1950, the UN's governors instituted a "technical assistance" program to provide advisory services, training grants, and small amounts of related equipment to developing countries to help them acquire the technical skills and knowledge they needed to improve the living standards of their people and modernize their economies.

Starting with projects valued at $55 million in 20 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, UN technical assistance has expanded and diversified into a program of $6 billion today in 150 countries (including a number in Eastern Europe that were formerly part of the Soviet Bloc). Projects span the spectrum of human concerns, from agriculture to health to child survival to education to industrial development to power generation to telecommunications to air and sea travel, and more.

Kofi Annan: "Peace and development are closely interrelated and mutually supportive."

The pattern of separate, compartmentalized management of the UN's mandates continued until the internecine warfare of the 1990s between and within the developing nations was seen as potentially threatening to world peace. Beginning in 1995, the multidimensional nature of those wars was officially recognized at the highest levels of the organization. Then Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali noted in his Agenda for Peace the self-evident but previously apparently unappreciated fact that:

"The sources of conflict and war are pervasive and deep. To reach them will require our utmost effort to enhance respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to promoted sustainable economic and social development for wider prosperity, to alleviate distress, and to curtail the existence and use of massively destructive weapons."

This theme was picked up again and reinforced in 1997 by Boutrous-Ghali's successor, Kofi Annan, who stated more succinctly in his Agenda for Development: "Peace and development are closely interrelated and mutually supportive."

This recognition gave impetus to a new, multidimensional approach, which had only been used on an ad hoc basis earlier in Namibia, Cambodia, and Haiti. This new approach integrated economic and social development, military peacekeeping the promotion of human rights, and the advancement of international law.

Integrated implementation of its mandates can permit the UN to promote effectively a culture of peace and a program of conflict prevention

For the first time in its history, the United Nations began systematically to bring together its various mandates to pursue the global peace which had been established to foster. This approach should facilitate a more efficient and effective use of the UN's many and diverse tools for peace, even as it enables the organization's long-sidelined and virtually unknown economic and humanitarian mandates to be carried out more effectively.

It is to be hoped that the UN's governmental masters will give political support to the use of the new integrated approach. Potentially, the integration of development, humanitarian, and international legal issues and objectives can permit the United Nations to promote more effectively a culture of peace and be more active in conflict prevention, thereby reducing the international crises calling for peacekeeping activities.

Jerold Burke is a retired career officer with the United Nations Development Programme, in which he served in Zambia, India, the South Pacific and Nepal, as well as at UN Headquarters. Among his assignments, her served as UNDP's Resident Representative and Deputy Resident Representative and, on secondment to the United Nations, as Senior Adviser to n Under Secretary-General. He is President of the West Triangle Chapter of the Untied Nations Association and past-President of its North Carolina Division.

"Let us Beat Our Swords Into Ploughshares" is a gift from the Soviet Union to the United Nations, installed in the UN north garden in 1959.  Sculptor Evgeniy Vuchetich created the nine-foot statue.
Swords Into Ploughshares Statue


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