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2000 In Review: UN Regains Role As Leading Peacemaker

  • Robert McMahon

The year 2000 marked the United Nations' re-emergence as the world's leading peacekeeping organization, underlined by the publicity given a Millennium Summit held three months ago at its New York headquarters. But RFE/RL UN correspondent Robert McMahon says that while many eyes were on the summit, a number of smaller developments may have done more to revive the stature of the world body.

United Nations, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations calendar in 2000 seemed to revolve around the Millennium Summit in September.

The summit drew the largest-ever gathering of heads of state and government. Their signing of the Millennium Declaration, a pledge to advance UN goals on everything from nuclear disarmament to reducing poverty, helped restore prestige to an organization that had weathered many setbacks in the 1990s.

But there were other developments during the year that also bolstered the UN's reputation, particularly in its most important role -- peacekeeping.

UN administrations continued to stabilize two crisis spots -- East Timor and Kosovo. In addition, an unprecedented series of internal reviews aimed for deeper reforms in the entire peacekeeping system.

Jeffrey Laurenti is a senior analyst at the United Nations Association, an independent U.S. think tank. He tells RFE/RL that the summit capped a series of developments highlighting the UN's renewed importance.

"These were all signs that the UN, which had been very much marginalized -- particularly by the United States -- from peacekeeping after the Bosnia war, was now back front and center."

There were setbacks, especially in Sierra Leone, where a UN mission narrowly averted a disaster, and in the Congo, where UN officials were still unable to organize a peacekeeping mission. But the United Nations was able to mark the successful conclusion of a small mission that guided Tajikistan through elections. Another small mission kept the peace between Georgia and separatist Abkhaz rebels as both sides tried to negotiate a political settlement.

UN Director of Communications Shashi Tharoor tells our correspondent that the organization largely met the major challenges to peace and security this year.

"If you look at the Balkans, by and large the news is good. Kosovo is by no means paradise, but it's a good deal better off than it was a year-and-a-half ago. Bosnia is on the road to recovery, and of course other countries where the UN was deployed so recently have turned the corner."

At year's end, UN member states were debating the proposals of an independent panel led by former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi. The panel called for sweeping improvements in resources and organization to make UN peacekeeping more professional, better equipped to respond rapidly to conflicts and able to guide post-conflict zones into societies observing the rule of law.

The report's recommendations are due to be voted on early next year. The Brahimi panel followed two other reports -- both in late 1999 -- commissioned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan which examined the causes of UN peacekeeping fiascoes in Rwanda and Bosnia in the mid-1990s. The reports were widely praised.

Joanna Weschler, who follows UN activities for the non- governmental organization Human Rights Watch, says the reports' candid treatment of both tragedies marked a big step forward for the United Nations.

"For me, these three reports are actually part of a trilogy. And if you look at them as such you can read the Brahimi report as, in part, a recipe for what to do to avoid those major human rights disasters which created such a very, very bad blemish on the UN's reputation as far as human rights are concerned."

Human Rights Watch and other NGOs also praised the activism of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. Weschler says Robinson has been one of the few prominent figures to speak out, for example, against reported abuses in Chechnya.

Robinson and the UN Human Rights Commission have called for an independent investigation of the human rights situation in Chechnya, but Russia has not complied. Weschler says:

"She has been the strongest international voice on Chechnya, quite certainly, and unfortunately -- because she has not received enough support from member states of the United Nations --there has not been really much progress being made by Russia in terms of establishing the facts related to human rights violations in Chechnya."

Russia's status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is seen as a reason it is not facing pressure to look into abuses in Chechnya.

Annan continued in 2000 to speak in favor of international intervention in humanitarian crises. But Russia and China -- another permanent member of the Security Council -- continued to oppose too broad an interpretation of this concept.

In other areas, Annan has directed the United Nations to develop a range of partnerships -- with civil society, governments and the private sector -- to find solutions to global problems. One of Annan's most promising initiatives was his so-called "Global Compact," in which he urged major world corporations to commit to UN standards in labor practices, human rights and other areas in the conducting their business.

Annan has spoken frequently of globalization as a positive economic force -- but one that must not bypass the hundreds of millions of impoverished in the world. Analyst Laurenti of the UN Association says the Global Compact gained momentum after last year's Seattle protests and amid concerns that globalization was not protecting the interests of average people.

Laurenti says the compact is an example of Annan's multi- pronged approach to doing business.

"He sees the UN as more than just a kind of international constabulary doing peacekeeping -- police work, as it were -- but also, as the way the UN charter writes it, as a multi-dimensional organization, preserving peace in all its aspects, including the economic aspects."

The first meeting of the Global Compact last summer drew an impressive list of executives, from global energy, mining and clothing firms, among others. They signed a pledge to adhere to UN standards, while non-governmental organizations would monitor their progress.

Some civil society groups criticized the initiative as extending legitimacy under the UN umbrella to companies with poor rights' records. They also said the compact lacks an effective means of checking on how companies are carrying out their pledges.

But the UN communications director, Tharoor, rejects this criticism. He says the United Nations is not providing any certification of good conduct to companies that join the compact, but is inviting them to conduct their business along UN guidelines.

In the year ahead, the United Nations will sponsor several major conferences on topics such as controlling the illegal sale of small arms, stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS and combating racism. It will also continue efforts to improve international sanctions policy, even while tough sanctions regimes continue against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The UN refugee agency, one of the world's most important humanitarian agencies, gets a new high commissioner when former Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers takes over at the end of this year. He will be charged with working with European governments to standardize immigration and refugee policy at a time when trafficking in humans is worsening.

On a related note, the United Nations sponsored a meeting this month on transnational organized crime, held in Palermo, Sicily. The four-day meeting ratified a convention to combat abuses such as crime and money laundering, which cross international borders. It marked the first time the world's nations have come together to sign any such legal instrument.

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