YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Reform U.N. Now or Pay the Price Later

September 06, 2000|J. BRIAN ATWOOD | J. Brian Atwood was the only American serving on the Panel on U.N. Peace Operations. He is president of Boston-based Citizens International and a former administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development

When images of suffering people, particularly children, cross television screens, Americans are moved to action, contributing money, goods and time. They also want to know what their government is doing to help.

We have seen this phenomenon in recent years in response to the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, the hurricanes that hit the Caribbean and Central America and the refugees from Bosnia and Kosovo. In each case, American public opinion drove the U.S. government's response and, in each case, the U.S. military was a primary instrument for relief.

You could call this phenomenon "situational humanitarianism." Americans don't tend to lie awake at night worrying about the quieter tragedies plaguing the developing world. However, the visible crises evoke sufficient intensity as to be felt at the political level. When government fails to perform well, there is a price to pay.

This is one good reason Americans ought to care about the report of the Secretary-General's Panel on U.N. Peace Operations released last month. This report, highly critical of the United Nations' capacity to conduct peacekeeping and peace-building activities, recommends far-reaching reforms that will ultimately benefit the victims of conflict and provide a more viable alternative to using U.S. military power for humanitarian relief peacekeeping or enforcement in conflict situations.

Since the end of the Cold War, a debate has raged in our country over the proper use of the U.S. military. Ironically, those who wish to spend more on personnel and weapons also want to restrict the use of the military to more traditional combat roles, of which there are, thankfully, precious few in the modern world. The Clinton administration has been criticized for using the military for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations even when the public seemed supportive.

This debate has already produced a rough consensus: that American troops should not be sent into conflict areas that are perceived as marginal to U.S. security interests. Thus, U.S. troops will not participate in places like Sierra Leone, Congo or the Ethiopia-Eritrea border region. These are jobs for the United Nations.

In these situations, U.S. diplomats play important roles in brokering peace agreements to halt, at least temporarily, hostilities that have produced the images that inevitably cause Americans to ask why their government hasn't done more. Then U.N. peacekeepers, often with inadequate forces and equipment, are sent into the breach. Soon they are shot at, kidnapped and forced to retreat by opposition forces that never intended to implement the peace agreements they signed. When that happens, not only does the world's chosen instrument of peace, the U.N., suffer a severe loss of credibility, the humanitarian crisis reemerges and Americans again demand to know why their government cannot put a stop to the suffering.

For just a few dollars and a modicum of political will, this cycle of peace breakthrough, inadequate U.N. implementation and the recurrence of violence could be ended. The Panel on U.N. Peace Operations has provided a blueprint that would provide better information, analysis, planning and, subsequently, clearer U.N. mandates supported by peacekeeping contingents large enough to deter or defeat the "lingering forces of war." The panel's recommendations will be considered this week at the U.N. Millennium Summit. International leaders will be told by Secretary-General Kofi Annan that the cost of doing nothing will far surpass the cost of making the recommended changes. There is abundant evidence to demonstrate this, Sierra Leone being the most recent case in point.

For the United States, the country with the world's most effective military force and the country with arguably the most intense, albeit situational, humanitarianism, the stakes will be high indeed. The Clinton administration strongly supports the panel's report, but the jury is still out on whether the larger body politic wants to reform the U.N. system--and at what price. If U.N. peace operations are not fixed now, Americans will pay the costs of the agency's future failures, not only in tax dollars but in the awful awareness that future victims must either be saved by the U.S. military, or not saved at all.

Los Angeles Times Articles