The U.N. is Finally Operating As It Was Designed To Operate But Do We Like It?

By Hanna Newcombe | 1991-03-01 12:00:00

Fortunately, the Cold war ended before the Iraq crisis broke out. Otherwise we would have had a superpower confrontation in the Middle East. Imagine facing not only Iraq's chemical weapons and Israel's nuclear weapons (it doesn't matter that the latter are on "our" side; we are all on the same side like a Moebius strip), but in addition also the entire U.S. and Soviet super-arsenals aimed at each other. The Cold War ended in the nick of time (we don't deserve to be so lucky), and we no"' have a different configuration. There is now only one superpower in the world and who will keep the U.S. in check? The Americans feel that they "won" the Cold War, and that they can do no wrong. Such self-righteousness, combined with unchecked military might, spells pride, the deadliest of the deadly sins, which is known to precede a fall.

It may be objected that there is now a better chance for cooperation of the Big Five in the United Nations Security Council, which authorized the use of force. The resolution does not demand such use of force, but only permits it.

Some see as hopeful the Big Five cooperation in the U.N. Security Council. They used to veto each other's resolutions during the Cold War, thus blocking effective action in crises where their proxies or client states 'were involved. As we were repeatedly told, this Cold War polarization of world politics prevented the U.N., especially the Security Council, from operating as the founders had intended. But now, with the polarization dissolved by the great changes of 1989, the original U.N. design can be realized and the founders' dreams can come true. It is claimed that we are seeing the first example of this new mode of U.N. operation in the Gulf Crisis. So how do we like it?

This mode of. operation is called "collective security." Its essence is that, if any nation commits aggression against any other nations in the U.N. (i.e. in the world) we will take appropriate joint actions to force the aggressor to retreat and restore the situation that preceded the aggression (i.e. to return all loot and pay reparations for damage done). The "appropriate actions" might include economic sanctions, military intervention, or both. This type of U.N. enforcement action is quite different from U.N. peace-keeping, which usually means impartial supervision of an armistice, truce or cease-fire. Such U.N. enforcement was tried only once before, in the Korean war of the late 194()s and early I 950s, which developed into a large war with millions of people killed-civilians as well as military.

The application of U.N. collective security in the Gulf Crisis has its positive side: the near-unanimous consensus of all nations to condemn Iraq's aggression and stay united as a coalition. Moreover, this coalition includes most Arab nations as well. But there is also a negative side, such as the U.S. acting too fast (ahead of U.N. authorization), not putting its forces and those of its allies under U.N. command (as had been done in the Korean War), the U.S. reacting with excessive vigor, pressing at the U.N. to allow military intervention before the economic sanctions had a chance to work.

However, suppose the U.S. had always acted and spoken in strict accordance with U.N. requirements, the question still remains: Are we happy with the application of the collective security system by the U.N. Security Council in the Gulf crisis? Do we want to see similar actions in other future crises? Is this how the future global military security system should operate?

Even those of us who are strong supporters of the U.N. have serious doubts. The confrontation over Iraq-Kuwait is very dangerous; it might even trigger nuclear war and spread beyond the region, giving rise to World War III. Even if the consequences turn out not to be quite so extreme, it may kill millions of innocent people and maybe fought with local mass-destruction weapons whose fall-out would be felt outside the region. Are we prepared to risk this for the sake of a principle of international law? (The cynics would say "for the sake of oil," but I refrain from imputing improper motives).

The risk of World War III exists because of the presence of mass destruction weapons in the arsenals of regional powers. Weapons of mass destruction have proliferated to ambitious regional powers who feel themselves under military threat. This includes Iraq and Israel in the Middle East, but also, further along the chain of nations called "the fuse" where war might spread if ignited anywhere along it, such mutual adversaries as India and Pakistan, both of which are actual or potential proliferators.

The trouble with collective security is that you sometimes have to fight a war to stop a war. That might have worked in the days of the League of Nations (when it was unfortunately never used, even in terms of economic sanctions against proven aggressors), but it is too dangerous in the age of nuclear and chemical weapons. The only way to go now is to prevent a war before it starts, not to punish the guilty party afterwards; and eventually, gradually, to abolish war altogether even a 'lust war" to defeat aggression. Otherwise we might bring to reality the Old Latin saying "Fiat iustitia, Pereat Mundus" ("Let Justice Prevail Though the World Perish").

In the long-range ideal situation, of course, there would be a world federation in a disarmed world, and law-breakers would be simply arrested and brought to trial, without involving the innocent people of their nation in any way. But we do not yet live in such a world, and cannot hide behind future Utopias when asked for alternative ways of acting in the present imperfect world. The other long-range ideal solution advocated by another section of the peace movement, namely a principled application of Gandhian nonviolence, may also not be fully applicable to the present problem, though it should be kept in mind as a part of a larger strategy mix.

While world federation and principled nonviolence are long-range alternatives, it may already be possible to start applying parts of them piecemeal. This might not only help in the present predicament, but also act as a building block in the transition to that long-range future. To act "as if" desired institutions already exist is often more powerful than a thousand words in making it actually happen in the real world. Some of this is, in fact, already happening, in recent successes of U.N. peace-keeping and mediation efforts in regional disputes such as Namibia, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, and Western Sahara, and in the people-power demonstrated successfully in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and South Africa.

Still, we must have other, more immediate, alternatives available as well. The U.N. should be transformed from the collective security model to the common security (see my article in PEACE Magazine, August 1990). Briefly, while collective security uses a model of criminal law (push back and punish the aggressor), common security is more like civil law, looking for equitable resolution of disputes between parties who are both partly guilty and partly victims; essentially, they have a problem that needs to be solved, rather than dealing with a one-sided injustice that must be righted. (Maybe there is such a thing as a no-fault war, just as there is a no-fault divorce.) Collective security is more legalistic and focuses on what must be done after war breaks out, while common security is more sociological and concentrates on how war should be prevented. Collective security is very definite in its prescription; common security is more vague but also more flexible. U.N. peacekeeping should continue to play a role in future U.N. common security practices, as should conflict resolution by mediation, arbitration, adjudication, votes and referenda, or various innovative methods recently suggested.

Dietrich Fischer ("Components of an Active Peace Policy," forthcoming in Future Research Quarterly) advocates three lines of "defence in depth" against the possibility of war. First, very generally among all nations in peace-time, practice functional cooperation on global problems -which is very necessary anyway as these problems are urgent. It is a well-documented finding of peace research that cooperation on superordinate goals tends to abolish enemy images and overcome hostile feelings. (See Muzafer Sherif et al, "Robber's Cave Experiment," University of Oklahoma, Norman, 1961.) Second, when disputes nevertheless arise, as they will, practice conflict resolution in all the myriad forms invented and perfected by social scientists in recent years. The repertory of skills is large and the literature in this fast growing field is extensive. It is important not to give up too soon on conflict resolution, as success often requires patience and time. Third and finally, if military force begins to be used, we should depend on non-offensive defence (NOD) in order to moderate the dire consequences of military violence. If the armies before the war adopt the NOD stance, they will be perceived as less threatening to each other and will make an outbreak of war less likely. NOD consists of never initiating war, never invading foreign territory, even "in hot pursuit," but defending one's own territory if invaded and making that intention clear to the opponent.

How would we apply these prescriptions to the Gulf crisis? It is too late to apply some of them-such as functional cooperation-but not too late for conflict resolution. Negotiations should never be refused just because some pre-conditions have not been satisfied. In particular, one should not demand or expect total capitulation before negotiations begin, as Bush seems to demand. There is a problem with applying NOD: we want to get Iraq out of Kuwait, which implies offensive action at this point. Still, perhaps it could take the form of "non-lethal offence," on the model of Canadian Army actions in last summer's Oka stand-off-declaring not to shoot first while intervening actively to remove the barricades, admitting reporters to the scene of action with a full blare of publicity, avoiding surprise and secrecy, and engaging in intensive tactical negotiations with the adversary. Such technology transfer from one stand-off to another would be valuable, a part of cumulative global social learning.

In summary, we must not remain in the rigid collective security mode. As Johan Galtung declared in the title of his recent book, "There Are Alternatives."

Hanna Newcombe is a peace researcher in Dundas, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1991, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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