To Intervene Or Not to Intervene?

That the United Nations is ineffective at responding to conflicts and humanitarian crises is obvious. That violent convulsions will continue to plague mankind is equally obvious. The question has long been what to do about these dual realities.

In the human rights community there has long floated around the idea of establishing an international rapid reaction force under the auspices of the United Nations security council that could immediately be deployed to address various crises as they emerge. In fact, in 1948 the first secretary-general of the UN proposed just such a force to deal with the violence and chaos that was then (and maybe still) plaguing Jerusalem. Predictably, the United States and the Soviet Union thought it a terrible idea.

When the idea is raised in earnest, it has historically been dismissed by the more pragmatic among us who see it as well-intentioned but hopelessly unfeasible. Not to be dissuaded, this week a group of academics, former government officials, and security experts tabled a proposal at the UN to create a 15,000 man military, civilian, police, and medical force to intervene for humanitarian purposes.

The proposal has some intellectual rigor behind it, contained in the pages of a compelling new book of essays [Warning: PDF link] edited by Robert Johansen of the University of Notre Dame. The volume is aptly titled A United Nations Emergency Peace Service to Prevent Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, and it makes a serious case for establishing what many have come to calling a “UN Army.” (In the book it is called an “Emergency Peace Force”).

In the introduction, Brain Urquhart addresses some of the common objections to the establishment of such a force. “…the most basic objection to a standing UN peace service is seldom expressed publicly. Protection of national sovereignty is a concern that very often limits the ability of the UN to do the right thing in the right way at the right time. Fear of any UN development that may erode national sovereignty has always limited the UN’s capacity for intervention.”

This is, in the phrasing of my colleague, a “spicy meatball.” It is indeed. It touches upon a fundamental contradiction that has always been at the heart of UN peacekeeping: international forces are only deployed with the agreement of the relative governments party to a crisis. In short, under certain circumstances – like say the slaughter of your own citizens – does a government forfeit the protections and privileges of sovereignty? Furthermore, who decides?

Now, presumably most people who ideologically reside somewhere near the center-left of the spectrum would offer up the UN Security Council for that task. But let us try a quick little thought experiment. For weeks the UN has been trying to convince the government in Khartoum to permit the entry of a UN force to take over for the pathetically undermanned and underequipped African Union force that is currently in Darfur. For weeks, the government has studiously avoided making a decision. Today, President Omar al-Bashir finally came out with an unequivocal statement, vowing to never allow U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur. For good measure he blamed Jewish organizations for pushing for their deployment.

So, what would be different today if we had a standing UN Emergency Peace Force? Well, if the force were only deployed at the approval of concerned governments…nothing. If the decision were taken out of Khartoum’s hands and placed into those of the security council. Well…nothing. It is highly inconceivable that China and Russia would agree to go over the head of the Sudanese government and sanction the intervention. Both for hard-headed economic reasons and because a larger issue is at play: namely the sanctity of sovereignty.

As noble as the sentiment is behind the creation of an Emergency Police Force, the need it would supposedly fill is sort of besides the point without some sort of resolution to the more fundamental problems posed by the very idea of humanitarian intervention.

Explore posts in the same categories: Intervention

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