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International disputes: New world optimism and the United Nations

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13 MAY 1991


The rhetoric of the "new world order" is weaving an appealing web of ideals across

the very structure of international relations. It is always tempting to succumb to

such beguiling notions, especially when they embrace generally desired outcomes

such as world peace, global cooperation and the end to international conflict.

I wish however to sound a cautionary note. We are entering a time of uncertainty

where we cannot rely solely on the optimistic rhetoric o f a more relaxed world.

Instead we need to seize the opportunity being presented by greater international

goodwill and build structures and processes on which to base the pursuit of global


Much is expected of the United Nations, which with its comprehensive membership

of 159 states has the potential - in many ways unrealised potential - to play a

greater role in world security. Its ability to do this however will depend on the

international community as a whole accepting more responsibility for international

dispute settlement and translating this into united and practical action under the

auspices of the UN and other multilateral and regional forums.

The UN has played an important world role in many areas which of course have a

bearing on the security of nations: areas such as development, education and

international law. Yet until recently, its direct security arm, the Security Council,

has had only modest results to justify its existence. Security issues have generally

been dealt with outside of U N auspices. Basically the major powers have not been

prepared to give it an effective role, particularly as so many conflicts have been seen


in terms of the superpower strategic balance during the Cold War period.

The Gulf War of course changed that perception, with the remarkable cohesion of

the members of the Security Council in passing the various resolutions regarding

Iraq's unjustified invasion of Kuwait. This unprecedented action has generated new

expectations of the Security Council and provided the trigger to something which

might well be coined "new world optimism".

Yet the Security Council's actions with regard to the Gulf War were a product of a

set of unprecedented circumstances: primarily the unity of interest of the United

States and the Soviet Union, combined with the pragmatic interest of China. There

is no guarantee that such a coincidence of interests will remain in the medium to

long term. Indeed, with political uncertainty in both the Soviet Union and China,

one must be cautious about such cooperation continuing and more realistic about

predicting future use of the veto in the Security Council by members of the

"Permanent Five".

In addition, the Security Council's actions with respect to the Gulf must also be seen

in terms of United States interests. The particular combinarion of factors in the

Gulf crisis led the US to act in the way it did and other past examples of aggression

have not resulted in such a response. The threat to Western access to oil and

Israel's potential response were two of the major factors underlying US reaction,

although the violation of the sovereignty of a small state had powerful global appeal.


The important point to note from this was that although the Gulf crisis certainly led

to a reinvigoration of the Security Council, the role of the US was pivotal and the

impetus generated by the US-led coalition in many ways left the Security Council

behind. However, the fact that the Security Council did indeed play a major part

in the decision to take action in the Gulf is significant in that a global mandate was

given for action in a way previously unheard of and this encourages a more positive

assessment of international desire and ability to cooperate. States did refer to the

United Nations for a mandate, action against Iraq was conducted under UN auspices

and the UN did supervise the negotiation and implementation of a ceasefire even

though it was not a UN force as such.

Yet there are already murmurings from the Third World, that from being hostage

to the wishes of two power blocs, they are now hostage to the wishes of one major

power. This, they say, was not the way collective security was designed to function.

However, as the world's one comprehensive superpower, the wishes of the United

States will to a large extent determine whether or not similar coalitions as that

formed for the Gulf War are constructed in the future.

The United Nations will have to come to terms with the supremacy of this one

power in the short to medium term. In the longer term, with changes in Europe,

Japan, China and other powers, the predicted multipolar world might develop, with

collective security then being determined by a group of powerful states and blocs.

Yet the fact that the United States sought the mandate of the Security Council for


each step in the Gulf conflict demonstrates that even a superpower such as the US

recognises the importance of collective decision making in such circumstances. It

was important to have international consensus and whilst the US provided the key

military component in the G ulf force, it certainly looked to the international

community for both military, and in particular, financial support. Although the US

has provided much in the way of world leadership, it clearly wants to construct a

supportive structure and obviously the UN will play a role in this.

How the Security Council will evolve in this new environment is of course an issue

now being addressed. It is time to examine the structure of the Security Council and

endeavour to make it into an organ with the ability to be more systematic in its

response to international crises and more definite in its overseer role. Its structure

and membership will need to be examined in the light of changing international


However the Security Council should not be expected to adopt a kind o f "world

policeman" role and indeed is unable, as it currently stands, to take an active role

in the resolution of disputes through coercive military force. At the moment, the

United Nations is generally able only to impose sanctions and authorise the use of

force, to be involved in the negotiation of dispute settlement in its capacity as a

peacemaker, and the maintenance of settlements in a peacekeeper role.

The UN Charter, under Chapter VII, allows for an enforcement role for the Security

Council through the formation o f a UN m ilitaiy force. However, this has never been


implemented and the world is not yet at a stage where the Permanent Five members

have common enough priorities to make the formation of such a force realistic or


Questions must also be raised as to the desirability of such a force under the

direction of the Permanent Five, given that the activities o f such a force should be

representative of the wishes of the membership of the UN: there is not always a

coincidence between the General Assembly and the Security Council.

However it would be useful for the Security Council to have the ability to take

preventative measures before potential conflicts reach crisis stage. At the moment,

all action is taken after the conflict has arisen or after a settlement has been

negotiated. If intervention could occur at an earlier stage disputes may never get

to the point of armed conflict. How something like this would work would have to

be the subject of considerable exploration, but an appropriate form of preventative

peacekeeping may well be useful.

In addition, the failure of the Security Council to protect the Kurds and other

minorities at the end o f the UN-sanctioned military action in the G ulf demonstrates

continuing shortcomings in the whole approach to handling conflict resolution. A

much broader view than just that of military victory must be taken.

Yet the United Nations does have the capacity to conduct successful peacekeeping

operations once settlements have been negotiated, which are firmly supported by the


UN membership. This should continue to be regarded as a cornerstone of the UN

global security role and United Nations abilities in this respect need to be further

enhanced and supported by the international community.

The UN Charter contains no specific provisions for peacekeeping and indeed there

is no permanent fund for peacekeeping activities. The latter is something which

needs to be remedied in view of the often crucial role that UN peacekeeping forces

play in stabilisation and the prevention of reemergence o f armed conflict in areas

where such forces have been called in.

Since 1948, the UN has conducted 21 peacekeeping missions, in addition to its most

recent involvement along the Iraq-Kuwait border. The most recent initiative is the

provision to establish a 1 700 member peacekeeping force to oversee the end of the

war in the Western Sahara. Others such as the planned Cambodian involvement are

in the pipeline.

Peacekeeping is clearly one of the most useful functions which the UN can assume

in international security, together with the provision of support mechanisms

following the end of conflict. This should be of particular interest to Australia,

especially in a regional context, in that UN involvement in the Asia-Pacific region

is probably something that will be increasingly required given the nature of

instability in the area. Australian forces have served with distinction in 16 of the

UN's peacekeeping activities and Australia, within its economic constraints, should

continue to support this work.


Moving on from its efforts in nation-building in Nicaragua and Namibia, the U N has

accepted for itself an even more ambitious role in Cambodia, a country desperately

in need of help to find a solution to its ongoing conflict. The Permanent Five

agreement of August 1990 provides for the formation of a Supreme National Council

as representative of the competing factions in Cambodia, a UN supervised ceasefire

and demobilisation of the factions' forces, an enhanced UN role in the interim

administration of Cambodia, and free and fair elections to be held under UN


The Cambodian plan is particularly significant in that it envisages a role for the UN

which the UN has not previously performed. The UN would be involved in the

comprehensive administration of Cambodia, peacekeeping and the direct conduct of

elections in an exercise that is likely to involve around 10 000 foreign civil and

military personnel and cost $l-$5 billion. Much was expected from this plan when

it was announced last year but the whole peace process has not made the progress

that was hoped.

The problem with the Permanent Five plan is its relative inflexibility, with a very

defined sequence of events needing to happen before progress on a ceasefire and

elections can be made. There are unresolved concerns about Cambodia's sovereignty,

the demobilisation of the guerrilla forces and the use of the word "genocide".

However the major obstacle is the lack of will on the part of the four factions to

agree on the composition of the Supreme National Council and under the UN plan,

unless that happens the plan cannot really proceed.


The process demonstrates the inability of the Security Council to make peace until

the parties concerned are ready for peace. In addition, doubts m ust remain as to

whether the Khmer Rouge will ever choose this peaceful path, which reflects the

dangers in promoting a plan that might give advantage to a party not genuinely


More flexibility needs to be present in such plans, not only in the case of Cambodia,

but in other cases where the UN is attempting to negotiate a settlement: flexibility

which can take advantage of changing conditions inevitable in complex and difficult

situations. It is hard, however, for a body with the extensive and complicated

bureaucratic structure of the UN to be flexible.

Despite these difficulties, the UN does have an important role to play in countries

such as Cambodia. Although the Cambodian plan is an ambitious exercise and

fraught with difficulties, if it is conducted successfully, it will set an important and

encouraging precedent for international dispute settlement.

In addition, the United Nations should play a role in addressing a different type of

problem such as that in Burma. Burma presents an intractable situation where the

existing authority, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), has

refused to hand over power to the democratically elected representatives of the

people of Burma.

It would be a challenge to arrive at a solution to the problems o f human rights,


struggling democracy and internal conflict in a way which would prevent further

escalation of the situation and bring about peace and prosperity.

h is encouraging that the UN sent Professor Sadako Ogata to Burma to investigate

reports of ongoing violations of human rights, despite the lack of access granted to

her by the authorities in Burma. Her recently released report, however, seems

somewhat timid. Her recommendations include the appointment of an independent

expert to examine the situation, as well as inviting the SLORC to convene

Parliament and lift internment measures against political prisoners, but they do not

take matters much further.

The situation in Burma is appalling: democratically elected political leaders are in

prison, fundamental human rights are being violated and conflict with the ethnic

minorities of the Karens, Kachins and Mons continues along the border areas.

The United Nations needs to be instrumental in raising regional and global

awareness of the problems in Burma and setting a plan of action in train to help the

people of Burma. In the same way as the UN finally overcame its aversion to

interference in internal matters in relation to the Kurds in Iraq, so non-interference

in the domestic affairs of states should be less at issue when human rights are being

violated on the scale that they are in Burma, or on the scale that they are in

Cambodia. The UN has put in enormous effort on the issue of Cambodia and it is

now time to concurrently turn attention to Burma. The U N needs to make Burma

its next cause.


Human rights do impinge on security. Instability in Burma, through continued

violation of human rights, affects not only the likelihood of internal insurrection, but

reduces the security of neighbouring states through the uncertainty that it

generates. Therefore the UN General Assembly, together with its human rights and

security arms, needs to seriously address the question of what can be done to

encourage democracy in Burma, thus not only increasing Burma's security and

stability, but security in the region as a whole.

Security has to be seen in comprehensive terms. It is not just a case of acting when

there is military conflict, but acting to remedy human rights violations, acting to

encourage democracy, economic opportunity, development and a whole host of other

priorities. There exists a network of interlinked issues that must be dealt with

before we can even approach the idea of a secure world.

As the international community gradually accepts greater responsibility for the

solution of global, regional and state problems there will be an increasing need to

give more adequate definition to the role of multilateral bodies such as the United

Nations. The UN, as it currently stands, needs a greater sense of purpose, it needs

to set priorities and it needs to examine its structure in the light of changing

international circumstances. With the current enhancement o f ideas of international

community and a new world optimism, the time is opportune to tackle problems that

have been seemingly intractable.