Worldpoliceman no more? Shouldered aside in Kosovo, UN rethinks global role
Minh T. Vo, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. - For the United Nations, the Kosovo experience is proving to be something of a shakedown run - and it could leave behind a road map for the world body's role in the next century.
Its successes in the Balkans conflict included easing refugee flows and providing a backbone for the West's promise of consequences by waving the gavel of its war-crimes tribunal.
The tribunal's first team of investigators will head to Kosovo today to begin gathering evidence of atrocities in the province, a spokesman said yesterday.
But its onetime role as global policeman is unlikely to be restored.
UN officials plan to play a key role in the mammoth task of reconstructing Kosovo. And some diplomats at the New York headquarters have tried to spin this as the world body's return to a central role in quelling trouble spots.
But many political analysts say recent weeks only confirm long-held suspicions that security concerns remain beyond the UN's grasp. They point out that NATO leads KFOR, the military force in Kosovo, and the resolution adopted by the Security Council last week was hammered out by Moscow and NATO.
The UN was further marginalized last month by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who pushed hard, her aides have been reported as saying, to keep the world body out of Belgrade for fear its envoys would only complicate negotiations.
At the UN, the Security Council could not overcome deep divisions over whether to countenance or condemn the NATO bombing campaign. Its 15 members fiercely, but futilely, debated the military action while real control lay with Brussels and Washington.
Meanwhile, the Chinese and Russian ambassadors' denunciation of NATO's initiative recalled another recent conflict.
Last December, the US and Britain launched airstrikes against Iraq, provoking angry protests from both China and Russia and highlighting the divide within the veto-wielding five permanent members of the Security Council.
"The UN [Security] Council is not going to be able to act in future situations any more than it was able to act in Kosovo," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Because the Security Council requires a consensus in order to act, negotiations can move at a glacial pace even as conflicts rage around the world.
The UN's reputation as a kind of global enforcer grew out of a cold-war phenomenon. The United States and the Soviet Union, knowing they could not afford to clash militarily, made room for the world body to put out the fires ignited by their proxy wars.
As recently as the beginning of this decade, the UN appeared to hold some sway as a regulator of armed force. The 1991 Gulf War seemed to validate the idea that military actions would require the UN's stamp of approval. The coalition forces' victory over Iraq raised the world body's standing and emboldened it to expand peacekeeping operations and disarmament efforts.
Now, eight years after the Gulf War, the disarmament attempt in Iraq has had only limited success. And peacekeeping forces worldwide have dwindled to 12,000 troops from a 1993 peak of more than 78,700. Then, the UN met with humiliation in Somalia, where peacekeeping failure led to the disastrous deployment of US troops, and Rwanda, where in 1994 about 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed.
In tallying UN debacles, observers also point to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, where Dutch UN troops failed to stop Serb forces from rounding up, and later executing, thousands of Bosnian Muslims in 1995.
Civil war erupted in Angola last December, and the government blamed the UN for failing to disarm rebel groups. As a result, the Security Council voted to pull out peacekeepers in February.
That same week, China vetoed the extension of a 1,100-strong force in Macedonia in retaliation for Macedonia's diplomatic recognition of Taiwan.
Still, the UN can play a vital role in conflict resolution, its defenders insist. Consensus in the Security Council just requires some horse trading, they say.
This could involve "buying China off through economic concessions or trade-offs," says Chris Joyner, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington. "Those kind of concessions ... [were] demonstrated in the case of the Gulf War. They did not veto."
In terms of peacekeeping missions, Secretary-General Kofi Annan often points out Namibia and Mozambique as positive examples. They work when the various factions want to cooperate, he has said, explaining the necessity for the UN's withdrawal from Angola.
In Albania and Mali, the United Nations Development Program implemented an innovative disarmament program whereby weapons are turned in for development assistance.
"The United Nations has proved that it is an essential presence for providing a forum for discussions behind the scenes," says Mr. Joyner.
The extradition of two suspects in the 1988 Pan Am bombing to The Hague in April can be partly attributed to UN-imposed sanctions against Libya.
The world body's condemnation of Indonesia's occupation of East Timor and Annan's behind-the-scenes efforts also get some credit for Jakarta's offer of independence to the tiny half-island.
Some political analysts see Kosovo as a sign for optimism as well.
"The lesson out of Kosovo is that NATO tried to do it alone. It worked militarily but it didn't work politically, because the damage to relations with Russia and China is very alarming," says Joshua Goldstein, a professor of international politics at American University in Washington. "So it had to come back to the UN."
France's representative here says the resolution adopted last week brings back the role of the Security Council. "The resolution clearly said that it is the Security Council that authorizes the member states and relevant international organizations to establish the international security presence," says Ambassador Alain Dejammet.
Western nations have been lobbying Annan on behalf of candidates they think should head the civilian administration.
"No doubt, if the civilian side of Kosovo doesn't work well, the United Nations will get the blame," says the Fletcher School's Mr. Hannum. "It's great as a scapegoat."
Perhaps the biggest lesson from Kosovo is that the UN can best be the cavalry in the aftermath of a conflict. Given its overstretched resources, it gratefully encourages a West African peacekeeping force, for example, to handle the conflict in Sierra Leone.
The UN has often shown its strength in the task of longer-term humanitarian relief. UN agencies have been advocates for women's rights, children's health, and the politically oppressed around the world - something that is often obscured by blunders in conflict resolution. And these commitments can prevent conflicts in indirect ways, UN supporters stress.
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