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In world still driven by conflict, peacekeeping has proud role, says Secretary-General, in Bangkok address

News and Press Release
Originally published
Following is the text of an address by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, delivered upon receiving an honorary degree from Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand, on 11 February:

It is a special pleasure for me to receive this honorary degree from your distinguished University. I know that it is not only me you are honouring today; you are also paying tribute to the United Nations and its global mission of peace. On behalf of the United Nations community, let me express my sincere gratitude for this recognition.

I have come to Thailand for many reasons. Bangkok is a major United Nations centre. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development is staging an important conference on the future direction of the world economy. And last, but not least, I am visiting the people of Thailand, who have been good friends of the United Nations for more than half a century.

So as you in Thailand well know, the work of the United Nations is as diverse as the human community itself. Today, I would like to talk to you about peacekeeping. First, because Thailand plays a vital role in this work. Second, because the United Nations is engaged in a new operation not far from here in East Timor, with Thai participation, that has important implications for the region and beyond. And third, because our efforts to stem the tide of deadly conflict, wherever it threatens, go to the heart of what the United Nations is all about.

Based on headlines and TV broadcasts, you might think that the United Nations does almost nothing but peacekeeping. In fact, the vast majority of our work is devoted to helping people to improve their conditions of life. Of course, development is the best form of conflict prevention. And development has no worse enemy than war.

There have been a number of success stories in United Nations peacekeeping. Namibian independence. Democratic elections in Mozambique. Far-reaching political reform in El Salvador. New human rights protections in Guatemala. An end to armed conflict in all these places. Most people would also add Cambodia to this list, even if peace came too late and not all the problems left by conflict in that country have yet been solved.

The past year has been especially tumultuous. The United Nations has been given massive new responsibilities to help rebuild Kosovo as a multi-ethnic society. We were handed a similarly far-reaching mission in East Timor. Our mission in Sierra Leone was expanded. We took preliminary steps to deploy an operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a complex conflict has spread instability throughout nearly half a continent. Today, around the world, the United Nations has 17 missions with an authorized strength of more than 30,000 troops, civilian police and military observers. The international community continues to place confidence in United Nations peacekeeping.

Thailand first participated in United Nations peacekeeping way back in 1958, in Lebanon. Thai personnel have also served in Namibia and Cambodia, and can be found today in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Herzegovina, along the Iraq- Kuwait border, and in East Timor. A Thai colonel will play an important role in East Timor, as commander of one of the main sectors of our operation. You should be proud of the part your country is playing in this work.

Peacekeeping has changed dramatically over the years. Until 10 or 15 years ago, United Nations forces were usually interposed between belligerent parties to monitor a ceasefire, or to report on the implementation of a peace agreement. But in recent years, we have also organized elections, demobilized rebel forces, repatriated refugees and been deeply involved in reconstruction and institution-building. These multi-dimensional operations are now the norm.

The most notable change from peacekeeping's earliest days is that where once most peacekeeping missions were sent to cope with conflicts between States, today United Nations forces are more often deployed to deal with internal conflicts. One reason for this development is that civil wars often have international dimensions -- notably refugee flows across borders, and sometimes a spillover of hostilities. Another reason was the end of the cold war, which witnessed the eruption of a number of conflicts that the super-Powers were no longer willing or able to suppress. Such conflicts arose at a time when it was easier to reach consensus in the Security Council on a United Nations role, since there were no longer rival super-Powers taking opposite sides in local conflicts.

Global media and human solidarity are also playing a role. When people see a suffering child on television, they feel concerned, even if the picture comes from the other side of the world. This is what originally took the world's peacekeepers to Somalia. Compelling humanitarian tragedies and appalling human rights abuses have also prompted international peacekeeping interventions. As a result of all these factors, the United Nations is much more engaged in keeping the peace in conflicts within States than ever before.

This is no easy task. All too often, the United Nations is called on to act in some of the world's most intractable situations, when no one else is ready to take on the challenge. Peacekeeping can provide a stabilizing presence, so that the parties do not slide back into war. That is one reason why peacekeepers have remained in Cyprus and on the Golan Heights for more than a quarter century. But the international community must never give up on conflict resolution. In both the cases I have just mentioned, we are hopeful that real progress will be achieved this year.

But along with our successes, we have had setbacks. Some peacekeeping missions have been wrongly conceived. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, the Security Council decided on the limited objective of alleviating the humanitarian consequences of the conflict. Humanitarian relief was certainly necessary, but it was no substitute for the political action and long-term commitment necessary to address "ethnic cleansing" and the root causes of that situation. Indeed, the Council's unwillingness to countenance stronger measures gave credence to criticism that Member States were using -- or misusing -- the instrument of peacekeeping simply to give the appearance of "doing something" about a crisis.

Peacekeepers have also been sent to places where there was no peace to keep. In Somalia, the parties repeatedly violated ceasefire agreements, and United Nations personnel became targets for murder, kidnapping and intimidation. Those who committed these crimes knew well that casualties can undermine support for a peacekeeping operation among the nations providing troops for it. Even in cases where there was a peace agreement, as in Angola and in Cambodia, peacekeepers have had to contend with recalcitrant rebel groups for whom war was a profitable enterprise, since these groups controlled valuable export commodities, such as diamonds, drugs and timber.

I commissioned two major studies last year of important peacekeeping failures, and I fully accepted their conclusions that the United Nations and the wider international community failed the people of Rwanda, and those of Srebrenica in Bosnia. We must do our utmost to avoid a recurrence of such horrors. And make no mistake: we are sure to be challenged again. With this in mind, I have set in motion a major study of our experiences in peacekeeping. I expect that, in some areas, I will be able to strengthen the system within my own authority. In others, I will make practical proposals to the Member States.

Speedy deployment is an absolute necessity if a ceasefire is to hold or a conflict is to be contained. Yet, the average time from decision to deployment can be three to four months. The United Nations needs rapid response capacity: at present, it is as if, when a fire breaks out, we must first build a fire station in order to respond.

For many years now, the United Nations has been seeking to build a reliable system in which trained and equipped troops are available immediately after the Security Council's decision to establish an operation. Under the so-called "standby" arrangements, more than 80 countries have identified more than 80,000 troops that could be available for service. However, Member States can still decline to participate, which means that standby arrangements are somewhat like traveller's checks with only one signature: until the owner countersigns, the currency cannot be used. In practice, standby arrangements have not proven themselves to be enough to meet the challenge of rapid deployment.

A number of governments have gone somewhat further than simply earmarking troops or other equipment that might be available. Under the leadership of Denmark, they have worked with each other to form a multinational standby high- readiness brigade -- known as SHIRBRIG -- some units of which could be ready to respond in as little as 48 hours following a Council decision and if the Member States involved decide they want to participate. The SHIRBRIG countries will meet in New York next month to discuss next steps, and we are encouraging other nations to form high-readiness capacities for possible use by the United Nations.

Rapid deployment can prevent enormous agony, and we must continue to work with Member States to reduce the time it takes for the United Nations to put peacekeepers in the field.

There also needs to be a new consensus among Member States about what United Nations peacekeeping can and cannot do. Policing a ceasefire line is one thing; fighting a war is quite another. Mounting a complex mission is one thing; imposing a peace settlement is quite another. The United Nations does not have the capacity to conduct combat operations; ad hoc "coalitions of the willing" are usually better suited for this purpose. But authorization by the Security Council is essential if the enforcement operation is to have broad international support and legitimacy.

East Timor is one case in point. When violence erupted after Indonesia failed to uphold its responsibility to provide a secure environment for the vote, the United Nations relied on an Australian-led force to restore order and ensure that the will of the people of East Timor was not thwarted. The Australian force has now begun handing over control of the territory to a United Nations peacekeeping operation.

An integral part of this United Nations transitional administration is its military component, which will assist in establishing an environment that will enable the East Timorese to build their own institutions and ultimately to become a full member of the community of nations.

Thailand has participated in both operations, and your Government fully understands what it takes to perform either role. As we cope with the challenges in East Timor, and simultaneously with Kosovo and Sierra Leone, and as we contemplate a critical operation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is clear we need to improve our capacity at Headquarters to mount and manage such operations.

The core capacities of the peacekeeping department of the United Nations Secretariat, which had been built up during the mid-1990s, have been pared back to an unacceptable level. Also in short supply are the necessary civilian personnel -- police, judges, administrators -- needed for today's complex operations. The Security Council has approved 4,700 police for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, but to date Member States have provided less than half that number.

The most important background command post, of course, is the Security Council. We need the Security Council to use peacekeeping when peacekeeping can make the difference, and to support the missions it creates with resources and political will. We need mandates that are realistic and credible, and that can be fulfilled. Most crucially, we must always match the task with the tools. The means must be commensurate with the mandate -- and the Security Council must always be ready to adapt the one to suit the other, as the evolution of the situation demands. We must be flexible and we must be firm. Peacekeeping was never meant to end wars but create space: diplomatic space for antagonists to move their differences from the battlefield to the negotiating table; and economic space for nations to draw back from destruction and find or regain the path of development. In a world still riven by conflict, there is a proud role for peacekeeping. It is too precious an instrument not to endow it with what it needs to succeed.

Today, we know more than ever that success in ending conflicts -- as in preventing them -- is linked to deeper questions of development, democratic governance, the rule of law and respect for human rights. This convergence of issues provides the broad context in which peacekeeping today is carried out. Understanding this context is essential to ensure that peacekeeping will remain a key instrument for conflict management and conflict resolution in this new century.

As I speak today to you, the young students of this prestigious University, I cannot but wish that you will grow up into a world without war and, therefore, a world in which peacekeeping will no longer be required. But we are all realists, and we know that the world will not simply conform to our dreams. So I wish instead that you will inherit a world that, even in the midst of conflict, strives for peace -- with a United Nations ready, able, willing and equipped to keep that peace.