American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 2000

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Warburg 2000 Conference
About Sir Kieran Prendergast
click here]
What other Conference 2000 Speakers had to say:

Elizabeth Pond , on Europe's 20th Century transformation:
The cold war was not a freezer, but an incubator of European cooperation. . . . Europe is not and never will be a homogenized federation, but it is already far more than a confederation."

Amb. Denis McLean, on sharing responsibility in wars of nationalism and separatism:
"The U.S. has a fundamental role to play in helping to put together the capabilities to meet these types of emergency. But so too have other countries."

Amb. Frank Crigler, on U.S. interest in conflicts far from our shores:
"We cannot disengage from Africa because America’s own roots run too deep there and because we as a people are too deeply touched by the fate of Africans."

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Collective Security—Posse or Global Cop?
Sir Kieran, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, delivered the Keynote address at the Warburg 2000 Conference luncheon at Simmons College February 29.
I SPEND MOST OF MY DAYS not as a cop or a posse member, but as the United Nations equivalent of a fireman—running from one blaze to another, from Guatemala and Haiti in the Western Hemisphere to such trouble spots as East Timor, Kosovo, Congo, and Afghanistan. But I believe that every practitioner of conflict management also needs opportunities for intellectual leavening, which is why I am here today, although sadly for a much shorter period than I would have wished.

I would have liked to listen to those of you who might want to make a case for the indispensability of unilateralism in a post-Cold War world in which American exceptionalism remains as strong as ever. As an international civil servant, and by personal conviction, I take a different view. I intend to use this occasion to highlight some of the virtues and benefits of multilateralism and collective action and to suggest what role the United Nations can play in this regard.

I would like to put to you four main arguments:

     First, in an era of globalization and rapidly growing interdependence, devising an effective collective security system becomes ever more important. A collective security system in the twenty-first century must be based on a broadened definition of security—human security—as well as a redefinition of national interest to include common interests of the intemational comunity. Sovereignty, while remaining the cornerstone of the intemational order, has never been an absolute concept and is subject to constant change emanating from the twin pressures of globalization and the evolution of international law.

     Secondly, though far from perfect, the UN’s record is far from insignificant. This is immediately evident if one considers the invention of peace keeping and the great universal legitimacy and authority of the UN’s major organs (SC, SG, GA, ECOSOC, ICJ). There is also our longstanding experience and expertise in preventive diplomacy and peacemaking, as well as in the human rights and humanitarian field—not to mention our work in the economic, social and environmental spheres.

     Thirdly, although the UN plays a vital role in the peaceful settlement of disputes, such as in early warning, mediation, fact-finding, election monitoring, disarmament, peacekeeping, and peace-building, it neither plays, nor does it aim to play, the role of global policeman; in many conflicts other actors are in a much better position to assist in conflict resolution and enforcement. We are, if you like, a helper of last resort.

     Fourthly, and finally, there is a growing awareness that the international community must develop a new culture of conflict prevention. I would argue that my concept of collective security of the twenty-first century must include prevention as one of its core pillars. The UN is well placed to play a key role in this regard due to its universal membership and the broad range of expertise among its departments and agencies. This new international security concept has been one of the strategic priorities Secretary General Kofi Annan has set for the UN in the twenty-first century.

Let me now turn to the theme of the conference and expand on these four arguments. The title of this conference suggests that there are many who believe that collective security can only be achieved by a posse or by a global cop. But the world is more complex than this stark choice would have us believe.

The UN is indeed asked to act as a posse on occasion. But the organization neither aims at, nor does it have the capacity to become, a global policeman. There is no political will among member states to allow this to happen. What the UN can do is provide international legitimacy when military action becomes necessary. At the same time, there is a wide measure of agreement that enforcement actions like Iraq or Bosnia are best left to others acting under the authority of the Security Council.

The UN Charter is the nearest thing we have to a constitution of the international community. It includes the comprehensive prohibition of the threat or use of force (Article 2, para. 4 of the Charter). This allows for only two exceptions. First, the right of:every member State to individual or collective self defence if an armed attack occurs, but only until the Security Council has taken the necessary measures to maintain international peace and security (Art. 51). And secondly, Security Council action under Chapter VII of the Charter.

This far-reaching ban on the use of force in international relations has contributed greatly to the creation of a relatively peaceful world order since World War II. The fact that on occasion there are countries that violate the rules should not be construed as an indication that these rules or principles are useless or meaningless.

The UN neither has the capacity to address all conflicts in the world nor would it be wise to involve the UN in all disputes and wars. In many conflicts, member states, regional organizations,
civil society organizations or prominent individuals are much better placed to act constructively as a third party.
The UN has played and is playing an important role in preventing, managing, or resolving conflicts. Let me cite some statistics which demonstrate the scope of our activities in the world today:
  • As of February 2000, the secretary general had more than fifty special and personal representatives, envoys, and other high level appointments dealing with peace and security issues around the globe.
  • The UN is presently engaged in sixteen peacekeeping operations. From 1948–2000, the UN launched a total of fifty-three peacekeeping operations. Important recent examples of the last twelve months include East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and probably soon the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But does our scope of activities entail that the UN could play the role of a global conflict manager with universal enforcement powers and capabilities? I do not think so.

The UN neither has the capacity to address all conflicts in the world nor would it be wise to involve the UN in all disputes and wars. In many conflicts, member states, regional organizations, civil society organizations or prominent individuals are much better placed to act constructively as a third party. Northern Ireland (Senator Mitchell), the Baltic States (OSCE), and the Middle East (Oslo Peace Process) are cases in point.

Yet the UN can play a vital role in dispute settlement. Mozambique, Guatemala, and East Timor among others are testimony to this.

In the final analysis, the UN should be perceived as an authority of last resort for enforcement when all the most powerful nations in the world agree — the Security Council and particularly its five permanent members. In addition, and ultimately more importantly, the UN is becoming an emerging focal point for preventing conflicts.

In this context it should be stressed that overall, military enforcement is for the most part, a very blunt tool.

  • It can only be applied effectively in the rare cases when aggressors can be distinguished clearly from victims.
  • It often leads to conflict escalation and more destruction. This raises the question of proportionality between means and ends.
  • It has a very limited scope in terms of conflict resolution because military action per se does not solve any of the root causes of conflict.
  • It also requires a very high level of collective political will and very rarely receives the necessary majority or unanimity in the Security Council.

But in extraordinary circumstances, military enforcement will remain necessary to contain and manage conflicts that have got out of control and are clearly outside the Iimits of peaceful settlement of disputes.

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