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For a UN Volunteer Military Force

The recent vast expansion of the United Nations’ peace-keeping commitments has sorely tested the UN’s ability to intervene in violent local conflicts before they get out of hand, as well as its willingness to place soldiers at risk when they do. Though UN forces have achieved major successes in such places as Namibia, El Salvador, and the Golan Heights, they have faced increasing difficulty elsewhere. In Cambodia, lightly armed peace-keepers are shot at, harassed, and even killed with impunity. In Angola, a tiny contingent of UN monitors has been overwhelmed by a rebel army determined to get its way by force of arms. In Mozambique, it has taken months for the UN to convince governments to contribute troops to an urgent mission in a situation that has not yet caught the attention of the Western press and television.

Above all, the tragedy of Bosnia has shown that international organizations are not able to deal effectively, and when necessary forcefully, with violent and single-minded factions in a civil war. The reluctance of governments to commit their troops to combat in a quagmire is understandable. Yet the Bosnian Muslims, among others, have paid a terrible price, and the credibility and relevance of international organizations are dangerously diminished. How can such impotence be prevented in the future? A stillborn idea from the past may suggest an answer.

The first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 was also the first major test of the UN’s ability to make its decisions stick. In a speech at Harvard during that tumultuous summer, the first secretary-general of the UN, Trygve Lie, proposed the establishment of a “comparatively small UN guard force…recruited by the Secretary-General and placed at the disposal of the Security Council.” Lie argued that “even a small United Nations force would command respect, for it would have all the authority of the United Nations behind it.”1 The kind of task he had in mind for such a force was to put an end to factional fighting in Jerusalem and to shore up the truce decreed by the Security Council.

In fact, the UN Charter had originally envisaged something much more ambitious. One of the great innovations of the Charter was the provision, in Article 43, for member nations to make military forces available to the Security Council. It is worth recalling the scale on which action by the Security Council was originally envisaged. The United States estimate of the forces it would supply under Article 43, which was by far the largest, included twenty divisions—over 300,000 troops—a very large naval force, 1,250 bombers and 2,250 fighters. However, by 1948, action along the lines of Article 43 had already been frozen by the cold war and by Soviet insistence that the great powers must make exactly equal contributions.

In Palestine the Arab states had rejected the UN partition decision and had gone to war to suppress the new state of Israel. Trygve Lie regarded this challenge to the UN’s authority as a vital test of the organization’s effectiveness in dealing with breaches of international peace and security and, faced with the paralysis of the Charter provisions for military forces, he proposed a UN legion. Lie’s proposal attracted considerable public attention but no governmental support at all.

Forty-five years later, in the milder post–cold war political climate, it may be time to revive Trygve Lie’s idea. The Security Council is today able to reach unanimous decisions on most of the important questions that come before it. The Council’s problem now is how to make these decisions stick. The technique of peace-keeping without using force has often proved effective in conflicts between states, whether in the Middle East, Cyprus, or Africa. Predictably enough, in chaotic and violent situations within states or former states, peace-keeping forces have been unable to impose the Security Council’s decisions on partisan militias and other nongovernmental groups, particularly when they are being manipulated indirectly by governments.

Although international enforcement action was successfully used against Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, the inability of the Security Council to enforce its decisions in less conventional military situations is the most serious setback for the world organization since the end of the cold war. Bosnia provides a particularly poignant example of this failure, but there are, or may well be, others—Angola and Cambodia, for example, and, before the US intervention there, Somalia. There will certainly be future conflicts in which an early display of strength by the Security Council will be needed if later disasters are to be prevented.

At the moment, the Security Council is often reduced to delivering admonitions or demands which have little or no impact on the actual situation. Like the legendary King Canute, it orders the waves to go back with small hope of practical results.

Whether or not it is too late to relieve the tragedy of Bosnia, it is essential to give the necessary authority and strength to the Security Council to deal with such situations more effectively in the future. The capacity to deploy credible and effective peace enforcement units, at short notice and at an early stage in a crisis, and with the strength and moral support of the world community behind them, would be a major step in this direction. Clearly, a timely intervention by a relatively small but highly trained force, willing and authorized to take combat risks and representing the will of the international community, could make a decisive difference in the early stages of a crisis.

Retrospective speculation about what might have been done at an early stage in Bosnia may have little value; the problem itself was, and is, uniquely complex. It is possible, however, that a much tougher early reaction to interference with humanitarian aid and to breaches of the cease-fire might have deterred the Serbian forces from their later excesses, particularly if it had been made clear that the small UN force would, if necessary, have had air and other strategic support from member states. In other words, a determined UN peace enforcement force, deployed before the situation had become desperate, and authorized to retaliate, might have provided the basis for a more effective international effort.

At the present time, financial, military, and political obstacles all combine to make such early intervention difficult or impossible. It is by now very clear that few, if any, governments are willing to commit their own troops to a forceful ground role in a situation which does not threaten their own security and which may well prove to be both violent and open-ended. National leaders are naturally reluctant to commit troops to distant operations in which they may sustain more than a few casualties.

The new unanimity of the Security Council on important problems, the confused intrastate conflicts now confronting the UN, and the natural reluctance of governments to involve their own forces in violent situations where their own interest and security are not involved—all these point strongly to the need for a highly trained international volunteer force, willing, if necessary, to fight hard to break the cycle of violence at an early stage in low-level but dangerous conflicts, especially ones involving irregular militias and groups. This is not a new idea. In An Agenda for Peace Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recommended “peace enforcement” units from member states, which would be “available on call and would consist of troops that have volunteered for such service.”2

An international volunteer force would be under the exclusive authority of the Security Council and under the day-to-day direction of the secretary-general. To function effectively, it would need the full support of members of the United Nations. Such support should include, if necessary, air, naval, and other kinds of military action. The volunteer force would be trained in the techniques of peace-keeping and negotiation as well as in the more bloody business of fighting.

A UN volunteer force would not, of course, take the place of preventive diplomacy, traditional peace-keeping forces, or of large-scale enforcement action under Chapter VII of the Charter, such as Desert Storm. It would not normally be employed against the military forces of states. It would be designed simply to fill a very important gap in the armory of the Security Council, giving it the ability to back up preventive diplomacy with a measure of immediate peace enforcement. As Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has recommended in An Agenda for Peace, the Security Council should “consider the utilization of peace enforcement units in clearly defined circumstances and with their terms of reference specified in advance.”3

There can be little doubt that there would be more than enough volunteers from around the world for an elite peace force of this kind. Thousands of men and women would apply, many of them with extensive military experience. The problem would be to select, organize, and train the best of them, develop a command and support structure, and form them into suitable operational units. All of this would take time, strong leadership and expertise, and, of course, money.

Situations in which such a force is urgently needed are likely to develop long before an international, volunteer UN peace force could be ready to take the field. An interim solution would be to recruit such a force from volunteers from national armies, as is suggested in An Agenda for Peace. Such volunteers would already be trained and might even make up national subunits in a UN volunteer force. To have volunteers from national armies serving together in such subunits would simplify administration and problems of command. The volunteer status of such troops should go far to relieve governments of inhibiting concerns about casualties and open-ended commitments that now make them unwilling to commit their national forces to such tasks. Volunteers from national armed forces could serve for limited periods with the permission of their national establishments, and could then return to their national armed forces. Meanwhile, the development of a permanent, standing UN volunteer force could go forward.

Any number of possible objections can be posed to the idea of a UN volunteer force. Until quite recently I myself, after a long association with UN peace-keeping, would have argued against it. The idea will certainly raise, in some minds at least, the specter of supranationality that has always haunted the idea of a standing UN army. If, however, the force can only be deployed with the authority of the Security Council, the necessary degree of control by member governments is guaranteed. The main difference from peace-keeping will be the role, the volunteer nature, and the immediate availability of the force.

The question of expense inevitably arises. As a rough guide, it has been estimated elsewhere that a five-thousand-strong light infantry force would cost about $380 million a year to maintain and equip, if surplus equipment could be obtained below cost from governments.4 The total cost of peace-keeping operations in 1992 was $1.4 billion, and it will be much more in 1993. The average ratio of expenditure between UN peace-keeping costs and national military outlays is of the order of $1 to $1,000. Units from a highly trained volunteer force might also replace traditional peace-keeping forces in some situations thus reducing costs for traditional peace-keeping. Most important, the possibility of the UN intervening convincingly at an early stage in a crisis would almost certainly provide, in the long term, for a large reduction in the complication and expense that belated intervention almost invariably entails. The delay in intervening in Somalia, for example, certainly created a much larger disaster, which in turn necessitated a much larger international response.

Finally, it may be feared that a UN volunteer force will run the risk of acquiring a “mercenary” image. Outstanding leadership, high standards of recruitment, training, and performance, and dedication to the principles and objectives of the UN should help to address such concerns.

There is one overwhelmingly good reason for creating a UN volunteer force: the conditions of the post–cold war world and the new challenges faced by the United Nations urgently demand it. The UN was founded nearly fifty years ago primarily as a mechanism for dealing with disputes and conflicts between states. It is now increasingly perceived, and called upon, as an international policeman and world emergency service. The Security Council lacks the capacity for the kind of swift and effective action that could give it the initiative in the early stages of a low-level conflict. Obviously, intensive thought would have to be given to the many problems involved in such an enterprise—selection, training, command, size, location, organization, discipline and loyalty, rules of engagement, legal status, logistical and other support, and, of course, financing. The cooperation of national military establishments would be essential, especially in such matters as air and logistical support.

It will take much imaginative effort for a UN volunteer force of this kind to become a working reality. As its experience and reputation grew, however, its need to use force would certainly decrease. Its existence, known effectiveness, and immediate availability would in themselves be a deterrent to low-level violence and would give important support for negotiation and peaceful settlement. It could become a decisively useful part of the machinery of the Security Council.

In 1948 Trygve Lie sadly concluded that a UN legion

would have required a degree of attention and imagination on the part of men in charge of the foreign policies of the principal Member nations that they seemed to be unable to give…to projects for strengthening directly the authority and prestige of the United Nations as an institution.5

Forty-five years and millions of casualties later, the time has come to summon up that attention and imagination.

May 13, 1993

  1. 1

    Trygve Lie, In the Cause of Peace (Macmillan, 1954), p. 98.

  2. 2

    An Agenda for Peace (United Nations, 1992), p. 26.

  3. 3

    An Agenda for Peace, p. 26.

  4. 4

    John M. Lee, Robert Von Pagenhardt, and Timothy W. Stanley, with a foreword by Robert S. MacNamara, To Unite Our Strength (Economic Studies Institute, 1992).

  5. 5

    Lie, In the Cause of Peace, p. 99.

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