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UN: Debate On Humanitarian Intervention To Halt Violence Heats Up

  • Lisa McAdams

The debate over international humanitarian intervention to protect civilians in strife-torn regions is shaping up as one of the most contentious of the 54th annual UN General Assembly's session. It takes place in the wake of NATO airstrikes to halt violence against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and the current deployment of multi-national peacekeepers in East Timor. The issue took center stage when U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan declared at the Assembly's opening session that the main challenge facing the UN in the next Millenium is its role in protecting civilians. RFE/RL Correspondent Lisa McAdams takes a closer look.

Washington, 4 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The international community has intervened in Rwanda, Kosovo and East Timor with varying and, in some cases, ongoing results. RFE/RL's Correspondent reports the burning questions now are when and where will they do it again, if at all? And, perhaps more importantly, will they do so with or without the approval of the UN Security Council, as was done in the case of Kosovo?

Chantal Oudraat, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International peace in Washington, told RFE/RL it is also important to remember that intervention, as called for by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, is but one part of a process:

"Armed intervention and the military can help stop the violence and that is the first step toward reconciliation and getting parties back together to help. But this is just the first step. You then have to go into more nation-building types of exercises, you will have to develop institutions through which different parties in society can voice their desires, their complaints, and so that they can voice them not by means of arms, but through dialogue, through institutions, through the buildings of parliament and democratic institutions."

At the same time, Oudraat said failure to go through the United Nations in future initiatives, could indeed lead to "gunboat diplomacy," as was the express concern of Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan. Tang told the UN General Assembly last week that NATO had created an "ominous precedent" when it bombed Serbia over Kosovo without Security Council approval.

China, as one of the permanent five members of the Council, has veto power.

The Chinese minister went on to say that Beijing is opposed to the use of force under whatever pretext. The issue of human rights is in essence, Tang said, an internal affair of a country and should be addressed mainly by the government of that country. It was a view widely shared by the ministers of Iran, Iraq, India, Belarus and Russia, among others.

But Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel strongly disagrees. Michel said the one lesson for the United Nations to learn from this century should be that for a state to massacre its own people can under no pretence be considered an "internal affair."

Michel added that while the Security Council was well equipped to deal with massive violations of human rights, he said it was regrettable, in Brussels' view, that a potential veto could stifle its action in situations of urgency. And he said he hoped that resorting to force without Security Council approval would not constitute a precedent.

U.S. President Bill Clinton endorsed Annan's warning that countries cannot assume their national sovereignty will protect them from international intervention to stop flagrant human rights abuses. But he differed from Annan's aim that such interventions be conducted under U.N. auspices. Clinton said the way the international community responds will, in his words, "depend upon the capacity of countries to act, and on their perception of their national interests."

Taking yet another tack on the issue, Oudraat told RFE/RL that one of the more compelling and frustrating elements of such interventions was that sometimes they are even manipulated by the very people they are designed to help.

"You have this perverse effect when talking about humanitarian intervention (whereby) groups on the ground that want pieces of territory of their own see this also as a chance. And these groups will often adopt tactics whereby they will escalate the violence at a very high level, thinking only then will the international community intervene on their behalf. It is a bit like what happened in Kosovo actually, so I think that is also something that great powers and others see and will make them extremely hesitant to intervene (in future)."

Further complicating UN intervention, Oudraat adds, is the lack of a standing UN military force to intervene, splits in a Security Council where five nations have veto power, and a shortage of funds. She said limitations on Annan's power at the UN helm also plays a role.

"The UN is really an empty shell and it can only act when its members, particularly the P-5 (permanent five Security Council Members), they are really the ones who say whether the UN can or can not intervene. I think it will be very unlikely that the UN will be given a standing army because the great powers want to continue to have a say where there will be intervention. And they don't want to be faced with a situation where intervention could potentially happen in their states."

Non-intervention was definitely the message delivered by Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraq. He told the UNGA that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention had NO place in international law and implied, in his words, "an organized onslaught on the most fundamental rules of sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity and non-interference."

Communist Cuba said attempts to impose such notions as the limitation of sovereignty and humanitarian intervention posed a threat to third world countries and must be brought to an end. Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque thus proposed increasing the number of permanent members of the Security Council to include nations from Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Ideally, Roque said, no one should have the power of veto. But if it could not be eliminated, he said it should at the very least be evenly shared among a large number of permanent members.

That is how Carnegie's Chantal Oudraat sees the debate shaping up, telling RFE/RL that it is far more likely the world will see an expanded Security Council, long before -- and perhaps even in lieu of -- increased humanitarian intervention. ss