• Email
  • Print

A UN Volunteer Military Force—Four Views

Editors’ Note: In the June 10 issue Brian Urquhart, former undersecretary-general of the United Nations, proposed that a UN volunteer military force be organized to meet the need for an “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.”

Clearly,” he wrote, “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 the crisis.” Such an international force, Mr. Urquhart said, “would be under the exclusive authority of the Security Council and under the day-to-day direction of the secretary-general.”

Following are some of the comments we have received on Mr. Urquhart’s essay. A more extended comment by Robert Oakley, former US special envoy to Somalia, will appear in the next issue.

To the Editors:

Sir Brian Urquhart has made an important contribution to our thinking on how to avoid future Bosnias with his call for a United Nations volunteer force. Indeed, the issue of collective security has not gotten the attention it deserves in US policy circles. We will need much more of such creative thinking if the United Nations is to achieve its purpose as a guarantor of international security. It is essential to the credibility of UN peacekeeping efforts that if peaceful means fail, the UN has the capability to bring military means to bear against an aggressor in a timely manner. A UN volunteer force could help to provide that capability.

As Urquhart notes, however, there is an almost overwhelming variety of questions raised by such a proposal ranging from the practical to the political. Finding acceptable answers to those questions will require a large investment of time, patience and diplomatic skill. In the meantime, the present UN peacekeeping system is desperately strained. Unpaid dues to the UN are approaching $2 billion. The UN Secretary General must constantly beg for personnel for ongoing peacekeeping operations. More than 70,000 UN “Blue Helmets” are in the field, with demands for more every day. Communications and information-gathering capabilities are either rudimentary or non-existent. These problems demand immediate attention if lives are to be saved and protected; resolving them will require extraordinary good will and international cooperation by a UN membership approaching 200 nations. There is a danger in overloading an already overburdened system with proposals which may tear the delicate fabric of cooperation.

While we ponder how best the UN can carry out its responsibilities for collective security, there are steps we can take now to respond to current needs. The United States can respond to the Secretary General’s request to negotiate an Article 43 agreement to provide military units to the UN on short notice to enforce ceasefires or resist aggression. We can provide excess defense articles from our inventory to a pre-positioned stock of basic peacekeeping equipment, as requested by the Secretary General. We can devise ways to share with the UN information gathered by US Embassies on political developments in other countries. Such information can assist in the development of the “early warning system” proposed by the Secretary General. We can pay our UN dues on time and in full, clear our arrearages, and urge others to do the same. Taking these steps now would alleviate the current crisis in the UN peacekeeping system, and provide the time which undoubtedly will be needed to give the UN volunteer force the serious consideration it deserves and develop the political consensus it will require.

The broader question raised by this essay remains: how the United States can help collective security succeed in instances of humanitarian intervention. Notwithstanding the success thus far of the UN-authorized, US-led intervention in Somalia, the mood of the American people is against further overseas interventions. Nonetheless, the United States will be asked to intervene frequently in the years ahead as civil conflicts continue to spread human misery and instability. As in Bosnia, US policy-makers will continue to be confronted with difficult questions. The United States will need to work closely with the international community to devise means for successful UN action.

Hon. Lee Hamilton

Chairman of the House Committee

on Foreign Affairs

US Congress

Washington, DC

To the Editors:

Brian Urquhart’s proposal for the establishment of a UN volunteer force, able and willing to forcibly intervene to “break the cycle of violence at an early stage in low-level but dangerous conflicts,” has obvious attractions for those of us around the world worried about this and other gaps in the international community’s present collective security repertoire. It would be great if the idea could fly, but I fear it will stay as grounded as its 1948 predecessor.

The most immediate problems are practical. To have 5,000 troops at the sharp end would normally require another 15,000 or so bodies in support; even then, given rotational needs, up to half the core force would be non-operational a good deal of the time. On this basis even a force as modest as that proposed could cost well over $1 billion annually to recruit, train, equip, house and deploy.

More importantly, it is not at all clear how a force of this size, even coming in at a much earlier stage, could have made a difference in any of the cases cited—Cambodia, Angola, Somalia and Bosnia. In Somalia alone it took UNITAF tens of thousands of troops just to deal with the “technicals.” In Cambodia it has taken 16,000 troops to run a base-line peacekeeping mission, without any enforcement role. And how many UN volunteers would have been needed to make a difference, even at the infancy of the crisis, in the Balkans? If, in most real-life situations, there would be a need to accompany the UN volunteer force with major additional contributions from member states, we are back to the present problem which Brian Urquhart is trying to resolve—the less than fulsome willingness of members to help the UN do its job properly by speedily committing resources of the right quantity and quality.

At another level, while old taboos about “supranationality” and the like certainly don’t have their Cold War resonance, it is going to take an awful lot of persuasion to make the developing countries give up their reservations about vesting power in the Security Council to call up its own force without having to put together the usual balanced multinational group. And the Permanent Five and quite a few others are going to be very cautious indeed about accepting a force under the day to day direction of the Secretary-General.

But the most basic problem which remains to be addressed in all of this is the conceptual one: defining the circumstances in which it is right for UN forces to play, on however small a scale, a combat role: There is almost certainly a gap that needs to be filled in the spectrum of response between traditional peacekeeping and full-on (i.e., Gulf-style) peace enforcement: the Secretary-General’s “peace enforcement units” and the Urquhart proposal are variations on this theme. But potential demands are likely to way outstrip the UN’s capacity to respond to them, particularly if the distinction between cross-border and internal conflicts and crises continues to fade as fast as it has in recent times.

The overwhelming need at the moment is for a really systematic and comprehensive prescriptive analysis of the UN’s security role in the post Cold War world: where and when it should get involved, to what extent and for how long, and with who paying for what—across the whole spectrum of potential activity from prevention to assistance to intervention.

A lot of work is being done on these issues around the world, and Brian Urquhart’s piece will be an important contribution to the debate. But it is going to be difficult to persuade countries to buy a corner of the picture before they have seen the whole canvas.

Gareth Evans

Foreign Minister of Australia

Canberra, Australia

To the Editors:

Brian Urquhart makes a good case for a force to be immediately available to implement a Security Council resolution, but I remain doubtful both about its desirability and about the practicalities of its formation, training and use. As for the former, I am not convinced that “an early display of strength” in “a determined UN peace enforcement” would necessarily “provide the basis for a more effective international effort.” In peace-keeping, and even more in peace-enforcement, there is always a danger that the UN force might become merely a reinforcement to the weaker side, discouraging it from coming to terms with its opponent. It may therefore discourage a lasting political solution. The weaker side does not necessarily always have right on its side.

The practical objections are many, including training, legal status and the maintenance of discipline, and the quality and suitability of personnel. If the force is to be immediately available, it must be relieved by other forces as soon as possible after it has been deployed.

In spite of my doubts, I would recommend that the Security Council should establish a working party, drawn from military and political officials of its permanent members, first to analyze previous UN operations and report what difference the existence of such a force would have made, and, secondly, to draw up a definite plan for such a force for consideration by the Secretary-General and the Security Council.

Field-Marshal Lord Carver

Hampshire, England

To the Editors:

Brian Urquhart’s proposal, which fleshes out, as he reminds us, a suggestion made last year by the Secretary-General of the UN, comes at the right moment. The collective debacle in Bosnia, the difficulties encountered by the UN in Cambodia and in Angola, the operation in Somalia, have all obliged us to think harder about a world in which the main danger is no longer an apocalyptic clash between two superpowers, but an epidemic of local chaos. The cold war seemed to underline the impotence of the small and the weak, the new world begins to look like a sorry and suicidal revenge of the weak.

Brian Urquhart’s proposal raises three questions. First, in what cases could such a volunteer force for peace enforcement be used? Cases of interstate aggression should continue to be dealt with, as was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, by collective security operations, with forces supplied by the members’ armies, navies, and air forces. The smaller peace-enforcing volunteer units Urquhart recommends could be used

1) in the cases of “failed states” (such as Cambodia or Somalia), when there is no longer any effective government or when the local government, ineffective and challenged, calls on the UN for help in reconstituting a legitimate and competent regime;

2) in civil wars, either at the request of a legitimate government that defends itself against an insurrection, or at the request of an insurrectionary group that has gained control of a significant part of a country and fights against a government that commits massive violations of human rights (cf. the Shiites in Iraq);

3) in wars of secession, when an important ethnic or religious group is fighting for self-determination (cf. the Kurds in Iraq, or Bosnia);

4) in interstate conflicts, when either a cease-fire or even a political settlement needs to be monitored by the UN, but the agreement is too shaky for such monitoring to be entrusted to the ordinary peacekeeping or observers’ force that is lightly armed and not supposed to engage in fighting.

The first two cases are, in classical international law, interventions in domestic affairs, the third is a mixed domestic and international conflict (domestic in the eyes of the state threatened by secession, international from the viewpoint of the forces that claim self-determination). In the first three cases, as Urquhart emphasizes, a UN intervention at an early stage of trouble would become more possible and credible than it has been so far, when there is nothing in between large-scale collective security and nonfighting peace-keepers, except sanctions that are often both ineffective and unfair. In the second, third, and fourth cases, the UN volunteer force could be sent either to enforce an agreement reached between the contenders, when such an agreement appears shaky, or to provide humanitarian assistance and to facilitate the reaching of a cease-fire or of a substantive settlement. There is, of course, a risk that the party that has not called for the force, or that has an interest in challenging a cease-fire or a substantive agreement will treat the UN force as an enemy. But the volunteers will constitute a fighting force, and whoever initiates an attack on them might risk being declared an aggressor and face a collective security operation. Also, in the cases of impending civil war or imminent conflict over self-determination, the Security Council could request, preventively, the stationing of a volunteer force, and resort to sanctions if the government of the troubled country refuses to accept it.

A second question is whether the resort to such a force should be decided case by case or whether the UN should attempt to codify the situations in which the peace-enforcers could be used, just as it has tried to provide a definition of aggression. In my opinion, pragmatism is preferable. Many states are not willing to accept the principle that certain kinds of internal wars, or extensive violations of human rights, necessarily constitute threats to peace which justify UN interventions; but they may be willing to accept such interventions in specific instances. Thus, despite the wellknown concern of many newly independent countries about sovereignty and non-intervention, several states (not all Muslim) have expressed sympathy for and solidarity with Bosnia, remembering perhaps the warning by Ethiopia’s Emperor to the League of Nations in 1935, after Italy’s aggression: Beware of becoming someone’s Ethiopia.

A third question is: What would assure and preserve the legitimacy of UN interventions that resort to a volunteer peace-enforcing force? On the one hand, the composition of the force would have to be carefully balanced so as not to allow for any suspicion of great power predominance, or of manipulation by an interested regional power. On the other hand, the vexing issue of the composition of the Security Council would need to be addressed at last. The solution consists neither in depriving existing permanent members of their veto (it isn’t possible) nor in adding new permanent members, such as Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil, with vetoes, but one could envisage veto-less new permanent members. In any case, Mr. Urquhart’s proposal deserves immediate consideration by the Secretary-General and the permanent members of the Security Council.

Stanley Hoffmann

Center for European Studies

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Brain Urquhart replies:

Of course there are many serious obstacles to the creation of a UN volunteer force. Some of these have been mentioned by Lord Carver and Gareth Evans in their very thoughtful commentaries. Objections include the reservations of the developing world about the Security Council, the reservations of many established powers about supranational arrangements, and, of course, expense. The main problem, however, remains. It is to give the UN the capacity to meet its current challenges.

I fully agree with Gareth Evans that a really systematic prescriptive analysis of the UN’s security role in the post–Cold War world is needed, but such a comprehensive undertaking will inevitably take much time and much debate. It is therefore necessary to try to find more immediate ways of addressing the corrosive violence and anarchy that are now afflicting many parts of the world.

Best of all would be a system of preventive diplomacy which weighed the portents of disaster in advance and harmonized the policies of governments in a common effort to avert conflict. Such an effort was notably lacking at the beginning of the Yugoslav crisis, with disastrous results. Here again Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s Agenda for Peace makes useful suggestions, but the likelihood of immediate results from this approach is small. Finding a better international means of dealing with situations involving low-level conflict is therefore an immediate priority.

At present the UN obviously lacks the means to deal with the kind of low-level conflicts that now dominate its agenda. Both from the standpoint of the millions of present or future victims of such situations and in order to ensure the future effectiveness of international organizations, it is essential to make an effort to remedy this deficiency. The success of such an effort will certainly depend to a large extent on whether nations will recognize the financial and other needs to which Representative Hamilton draws attention. And in creating any new force, the UN members should take account of, and refine, the useful distinctions made by Professor Hoffmann.

Developing a UN volunteer force will certainly be a difficult undertaking. If there is a better course of early action, I hope someone will suggest it. My intention was to provide a basis for a serious and imaginative debate on this very important subject.

  • Email
  • Print