Washington, 8 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A proposal that the United Nations assume responsibility for a transition regime in East Timor may help to resolve the difficult problems in that region.
But any such UN mandate would lead other groups to seek similar protection, and regardless of whether the UN is prepared to do so in any particular case, these demands would both undermine the sovereignty of existing states and accelerate the transformation of the international system.
That future possibility does not appear to have been on the mind of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan when he suggested on Tuesday that the United Nations should assume full control over East Timor in order to assist its transition to full independence.
According to Annan, UN supervision would last only two or three years, but his enumeration of the problems in that region -- "The judiciary and court systems have ceased to exist. Essential services, such as water and electricity, are in real danger of collapse" -- suggests the UN might have to remain there for a long time.
That was certainly true during the earlier mandate periods after the two world wars when national governments were granted mandates to control foreign territories.
Annan clearly hopes to avoid the problems of those national mandates: Indeed, he suggested that such a UN supervisory role would allow Australia to withdraw the forces it sent to restore order in East Timor and thus stem the rising tide of resentment against Canberra in Asia.
Since the secretary general made his proposal, most of the discussion in the United States and Western Europe has focused on the question of just how much such a UN operation would cost. Some diplomats have suggested that such a UN operation could have a $1 billion price tag.
Even if the UN and its member states are willing to pay this price and even if a UN mandate works for East Timor -- neither of which is a given -- Annan's proposal is likely to extract a far higher political cost on the international system in at least three ways.
First of all, such a new international mandate system seems certain to lead other groups to demand a similar arrangement for themselves as a half-way house to independence especially because an international mandate would not carry the stigma of the national mandates of the past.
Consequently, if the UN does decide to create a mandate for itself in East Timor, it may soon be flooded with other demands likely to exceed both its financial and political capacity.
Second, these insurgent groups may to conclude that the UN will be most likely to act if there is well-covered violence and thus at least some of them may seek to provoke violence in order to force the hand of the Security Council.
Not only would such calculations likely lead to more challenges to the authority of existing states, but they could mean that these challenges would be more violent and more violent sooner than would otherwise be the case.
Thus, a measure intended to limit violence in one place could have the unintended consequence of causing more violence elsewhere.
And third, the UN itself is certain to be highly selective in deciding on which groups would be given such an international mandate and which would not.
Those groups which challenge the governments of large and powerful states, particularly the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- United State, Russia, France, China, and Great Britain -- are unlikely to ever receive such treatment.
Those in areas where the major powers have an interest but do not have control are the most likely to get it, while those where the great powers do not have control or an interest are almost certain to find their requests rejected.
Such a pattern will thus subvert at least some of the intentions of such a mandate system, undercutting the nobility of the idea for East Timor and setting the stage for more violence in and more cynicism about the international community.
For all these reasons, Kofi Annan's proposal may become a turning point in the evolution of the post-Cold War international system.