The Urquhart debate

Pros and cons of the UN military force: the UN volunteer force will run the risk of acquiring a mercenary image

By Mile Bozickovic | 1993-11-01 12:00:00

In his important article, "Needed-a U.N. Military Force, (New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993) Brian Urquhart, former undersecretary of the United Nations, argues that the United Nations needs to have its own volunteer standing military force, which would act at the early stages of any conflict brewing anywhere in the world. Day to day direction of the force would be under the Secretary General. Such U.N. force would not be used against the military forces of individual states.

Mr. Urquhart believes that it would be easy to create such a force, because there are thousands of men and women who would apply, many of them with an extensive military experience. The main problem, as he sees it, would be to select, organize, and train the best of them, to develop a command and support structure, and shape them into an effective military force.

Another issue is costs. U.N. estimates of peacekeeping costs in 1993 are over U. S. $3 billion. Mr. Urquhart argues that early interventions would actually reduce the overall costs in the long run.

The third problem-and he sees it as a minor one-is the fear that the U.N. volunteer force will run the risk of acquiring a "mercenary image." Mr. Urquhart suggests that high professional standards of such a force-its training, performance, and its dedication to the principles of the U.N.-will alleviate such concerns.

The above proposal soon received a number of replies in successive issues of The New York Review of Books. Although in general supportive, they raise a number of questions that had not been addressed in Mr. Urquhart's article. The first response arrived from Mr. Lee Hamilton, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. Congress.

Mr. Hamilton entirely agrees with the need for a U.N. military force, but calls for a greater U.S. involvement. He argues that the U.S. would be able to assist the most in the area of logistics, intelligence, and in the greater use of the U.S. military stockpiles, as well as furnishing the U.S. units for a U.N. force. The greatest help that the U.S. could give the U.N. for this project would be to pay the dues it owes to the U.N. (which Clinton has promised to do).

The second reply came from Mr. Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister of Australia. His concerns about this proposal centre on the cost and the size of such a force. He reminds us that a five thousand strong "teeth" unit, would require a fifteen thousand strong "tail." In his opinion the cost of any effective U.N. volunteer force would be prohibitive.

Evans's second concern is that the U.N. member states from the Third World would thus be dominated by the First World powers sitting as the permanent members of the Security Council. Mr. Evans also asks when is it right for the U.N. force to assume a combat role? Who will decide when is it going to be enacted-and in whose interest?

Another reply came from the field-marshal Lord Carver of the U.K., who opposes the idea on the premise that this U.N. force would merely reinforce the weaker side and thus discourage it from coming to terms with its adversaries. It should be noted that the weaker side in any conflict does not always have right on its side.

The last response to be mentioned here arrived from Stanley Hoffmann, of Harvard's Centre for European Studies. Professor Hoffmann believes that Mr. Urquhart's proposal deserves an immediate consideration by the Secretary General and the permanent members of the Security Council. He argues that there are four cases where the U.N. force could be used. These are the cases of the failed states; of civil wars; of wars of secession; and of certain inter-state conflicts.

Let me pose some questions concerning Mr. Urquhart's proposal and the comments it provoked. First, this proposal raises a question as to what happens to the notion of the national sovereignty, as defined in the U.N. Charter. Is a U.N. force to be allowed to intervene relatively freely in the internal matters of its member states?

This, in turn, raises a question as to the present and possible future composition of the Security Council, which is presently dominated by its permanent members with a veto power. There is no doubt that future interventions (let's call a spade a spade) would be authorized only if they serve the interest of preserving the status quo, which is identical with the interests of the G-7 group.

This brings us to the problematic relationship between the traditional peacekeeping and the proposed U.N. standing force that would engage in peacemaking. The Urquhart proposal, applied to the world as it is, would limit the use of U.N. force to the Third and the former Second World nations, because it is hardly likely that any present or future permanent member of the Security Council would allow its use ontheir territory or against their interests.

This would mean that the U.N. was not only a political arm of the dominant world powers, but their military arm as well. Each of the smaller nations would then rally to one or another permanent member of the Security Council, to become their clients and to receive their protection-to assure that the U.N. military force would not intervene on their territory. That would then create two classes of nation states in the world: those that are satellites of this or that major power (and are consequently protected from others), and the rest, which are independent but also unprotected in relation to the powerful ones. A kind of international free game!

The U.N. Security Council could, in such a context, be transformed from a place where the problems and conflicts could perhaps be solved into a place where they are created.

Last but not least, we should remember that even though there may be a small semantic difference between peacekeeping and the peacemaking, that difference is actually equal to the difference between war and peace, when it comes to the actions on the ground.

Mile Bozickovic is a law graduate from the University of Belgrade and a former officer in the Yugoslav People's Army.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1993, page 10. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Mile Bozickovic here

Peace Magazine homepage