Globe&Mail - A matter of intervention


Tuesday, December 7, 1999

New York -- The United Nations has been on a diet, its budget frozen for five years. Among the most important dieticians is Canada's Louise Frechette.

Ms. Frechette was plucked from her job as deputy minister of defence in Ottawa to become deputy secretary-general of the UN. As such, she has a hand in almost everything the world body does.

The UN has not had a budget increase in real terms since 1994. Each year, inflation has eaten away at the budget, although demands on the UN have not declined. The result has been a reduction of perhaps $350-million in real terms these past five years, including a smaller Secretariat where Ms. Frechette is No. 2.

Budgets are for member-states to vote on. So is the issue of changing the composition of the Security Council, a debate that risks running as long as Canada's constitutional psychodrama. The debate about expanding the council, and especially those countries with vetoes, began when Ms. Frechette was Canada's UN ambassador in the early 1990s.

"Most issues at the UN do not really engage seriously the interests of all the member-states," Ms. Frechette observed. "On any given issue, you will have a limited number of states that really do care. . . . On the Security Council [file], every member-state has a view. . . . This is one of those rare issues where everybody feels their interests are at stake."

In other words, the discussion about Security Council reform continues, but at a low level and without energy or momentum.

The same cannot be said about peacekeeping and, more broadly, the role of the UN in sanctioning international intervention where human rights are being grossly abused. This was the subject explored in a series of speeches by Secretary-General Kofi Annan after the Kosovo operation, in which European countries, Canada and the United States intervened militarily without UN approval. They justified the intervention on the grounds of human-rights abuses by Serbia.

But failure to secure UN approval, as was done in the Persian Gulf and East Timor interventions, left open the UN's role in sanctioning military operations. Just a few years ago, it seemed as if UN peacekeeping was on the wane. Now the UN is sanctioning the dispatch of 6,000 troops to Sierra Leone and 4,000 to East Timor.

"There was this notion that the UN wasn't going to be doing much peacekeeping, that regional organizations were going to do that," Ms. Frechette said. "Suddenly, we're in Kosovo, we're in East Timor, we're in Sierra Leone."

The UN, without a standing army, needs a better sense of what member-states will be prepared to contribute militarily to peacekeeping operations. But Ms. Frechette says the UN has discovered that aid to the civil power is as important.

"It's on the civilian side that, in fact, our systems are poorly adapted to the kinds of needs we're facing in Kosovo and East Timor. We are now administering two territories, and we have to staff up our mission with people who know something about health administration, education, justice. . . . This is a tall order and we do not have anybody with that capacity."

The Kosovo crisis shook up the UN. Here was military action the UN did not sanction. The institution was bypassed, because those who wanted action against Serbia were not prepared to allow Russian and Chinese vetoes on the Security Council to thwart military plans.

"I think many people would argue that this is the wrong principle. If by that you mean that a regional organization can arrogate unto itself the right to decide. This is not a principle that is accepted within the UN at all. But it didn't happen."

That's why Mr. Annan posed the question in his speeches about how and when the international community could intervene in the domestic affairs of a member-state to stop human-rights abuses.

Mr. Annan fairly posed the question. Chances are, as in the past, the answer will be: intervention with UN support if possible, but intervention without it if necessary.

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