Accessibility links

UN: Post-Conflict Model -- Coalitions Handle Security, UN Steers Political Course

  • Robert McMahon

As UN Security Council members begin debates over the scope of the UN role in Iraq, forces deployed under UN mandate keep the peace in a number of world hot spots. The way these forces operate, from Afghanistan to the Balkans, show the range of options Security Council members have used. The most successful align potent military force alongside the skilled civil servants of the United Nations.

United Nations, 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In considering how to recast the UN role in Iraq, the UN Security Council can draw from the experiences of a range of missions keeping the peace from the Balkans to Afghanistan.

NATO forces now patrol in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Afghanistan under Security Council authority. Politically, however, the UN role in each place has varied, with mixed results.

The United Nations administers Kosovo like a virtual protectorate. In nearby Bosnia, the UN was assigned no major political role after the 1995 Dayton Accords. But last year, a UN mission in Bosnia concluded the largest police-reform effort in UN history.

In Afghanistan, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi advises the interim administration led by Hamid Karzai as it tries to craft a constitution and hold elections.

The United States, facing mounting security difficulties in Iraq, last week proposed a resolution that could raise the UN profile there as well.

The U.S. proposal would convert the existing military occupation into a UN-mandated multinational force, to be commanded by an American. It calls on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to present a timeline for writing a constitution and holding elections, a process to be overseen by the United Nations.

UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications Shashi Tharoor says the UN is hoping to facilitate the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty. But he tells RFE/RL the UN will remain on the sidelines until the Security Council agrees on a way forward.

"It is not entirely clear whether the UN would have much of an enhanced role on the political side because, as I understand it, some of the discussions right now are focusing on how to get the Iraqi Governing Council to take on more authority and responsibility," Tharoor said. "But I must stress, it's very early days yet. The resolution is in an early consultative process and our interest in the UN Secretariat is really to step back a little to let people to take the time and the trouble to find common ground so that we have a solid basis for moving forward."

The UN peacekeeping debacles of the 1990s have led to a growing number of instances in which "coalitions of the willing" are assigned the UN mandate for security.

The United Nations has served an effective political role in a number of these missions, says Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a security expert at the independent UN Foundation.

"They're all hybrids, but they have one characteristic in common," she said. "They have a lead nation plus the UN. And so the fact the U.S. would be the lead nation is not a new model -- whether it was the Australians in [East] Timor, whether it was the Germans in Kosovo through NATO, these are just different models. As [former British UN Ambassador] Jeremy Greenstock always said, 'it was the UN-plus-one model that had been the most successful methodology.'"

Mendelson-Forman took part in a recent independent mission to Iraq that warned of a shrinking window of opportunity to secure Iraq.

Her team advised the U.S. Defense Department to expand the UN role to broaden the number of contributions, especially from Arab and Muslim states.

Mendelson-Forman: "The strengths of the UN, which are really in helping to move the electoral process forward, of providing Arabic-speaking advisers, perhaps providing clear and coherent public information -- something that the coalition has failed to do -- might be a moderating force while the ministries are [being set] up."

The Security Council placed the UN in charge of Kosovo's political process after a NATO bombing campaign in Serbia that did not have council endorsement.

In its four years running Kosovo, the United Nations has helped organize local elections and gradually transfer power to the province's Provisional Institutions of Self Government. But it has also come under increasing pressure by Serbs and ethnic Albanians to settle final status issues for the province.

The International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization, last week issued a report faulting former UN Special Representative Michael Steiner for damaging the relationship between the UN and provincial authorities.

The ICG report urged new UN Special Representative Harri Holkeri to engage ethnic Albanian leaders more constructively.

The Kosovo model was not a major option when Security Council members began meeting in late 2001 after U.S. forces ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But the council did appoint one of the UN's most well-respected diplomats, Lakhdar Brahimi, to head a mission to guide reconstruction, humanitarian efforts, and help the political transition process.

Brahimi has repeatedly called on the council to expand the military mandate beyond Kabul to safeguard reforms. NATO last month took charge of the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force and signaled it may consider expanding the force.

Thomas Weiss is director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York. He tells RFE/RL the UN -- bolstered by the security force -- has made an impact in Afghanistan.

"There clearly, the United Nations has played the essential transition role," Weiss said. "We can call it a 'soft footprint,' but it's a major international presence, standing side-by-side with the government and certainly orchestrating the humanitarian role."

The Security Council resolution that authorized the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq gave an ambiguous role to the United Nations. But UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello had gradually expanded the UN's political influence.

Vieira de Mello had established a productive relationship with U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer and had a role in appointing the Iraqi Governing Council. UN efforts suffered a blow when Vieira de Mello was among the 23 people killed in the 19 August terrorist bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters.

Nevertheless, Weiss says, there is an established track record of military coalitions coordinating with civilian missions under UN authority.

"Whether it's [former head of the UN Mission in Kosovo Bernard] Kouchner, or de Mello or Brahimi, you have very adept political actors on the ground. And the United States and its partners -- sometimes NATO, sometimes a more ad hoc coalition -- have always found a way of operating side by side."

The UN Security Council on 5 September held its first informal meetings on the U.S. draft resolution. France, Germany, and Russia have signaled there will need to be deeper negotiations focusing on how quickly to restore Iraqi sovereignty and on broadening the UN's role in the reconstruction process. But council members said the talks took place in a constructive atmosphere.