Comment: Just like the Book of Kings

Douglas Hurd argues that the world has a chance to bring cataclysmic conflicts to an end

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By the bridge that crosses the river in the middle of Sarajevo stands a black and white post on which is painted a prayer for world peace. A few yards away is the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914. The horrors which that murder inflicted on the world revisited Sarajevo during the recent siege.

This plain post with its simple message is the final shot of a BBC series I have made, which begins with film of my uncle's grave on the Somme. The title of the series is The Search for Peace, and the conclusion has to be that it has not yet been found. But the footprint of peace on the path ahead may be clearer now, and give us hope to continue.

We now have our fourth chance this century to establish a sound system of defence against threats to peace. The first was lost in 1914. The second dissolved in the 1930s as the faulty design and defective materials of the Versailles settlement brought it down. The third settlement, after the Second World War, lasted better, at the price of permitting the Soviet Union to oppress an array of satellite nations. There has been no one since 1989 to exact that price. Since then two main ideas have been sweeping through the world, both of them congenial to ourselves - the growth of political democracy and the growth of prosperity through free trade. In the excitement at the collapse of communism, President Bush proclaimed a new world order. It seemed at least possible that our fourth attempt to construct such an order would be successful. Yet looking today it sometimes seems more akin to the inhumanities of the Old Testament than to anything described in the UN Charter. The author of the Book of Kings would have no difficulty understanding what is happening in Algeria or Afghanistan.

Since nation states became the normal form of international organisation about 400 years ago, just about every decade has seen examples of one nation attacking another. It happens that the last two examples of straightforward aggression have ended in disaster for the aggressor - the Argentine invasion of the Falklands in 1982 and Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Indeed, the optimist might suppose that the manner in which that last aggression was reversed might provide such an effective model that future aggressors will be deterred. The United States took the lead, but it acted with the specific authority of the United Nations' Security Council. It mobilised a coalition of willing states, including a considerable majority of the Arab nations. The steps of the effort were carefully calibrated. Only when diplomacy failed were economic sanctions applied. Only when these failed were air strikes undertaken. Only when these proved insufficient did allied ground forces liberate Kuwait. The United States stopped the fighting earlier than most expected and resisted the temptation in victory to extend its ambitions. Despite this discouraging precedent for an aggressor, we have to face the likelihood that some future dictator, or conceivably Saddam Hussein again, may feel tempted by the possession of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons to threaten his adversaries. Hence the present cluster of diplomatic anxiety around North Korea. Hence the justified insistence of the Security Council on continued rigorous inspection of Iraq's facilities.

But the principal danger to peace in the future, as in the recent past, will lie in civil wars. The international community is still groping for an adequate response. When I was a young diplomat at the UN in the 1950s we all knew by heart the wording of Article 2 (7) of the United Nations' Charter, which prevents the UN from intervening in the internal affairs of member states. Colonies were not regarded as internal affairs, and because the apartheid regime was thought to be uniquely horrible, South Africa was also made an exception. But the UN, largely composed of newly independent states, showed no signs of wishing to diminish that independence by allowing them to intervene in internal affairs, however great the misery or indeed the slaughter. As Secretary-General of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold's expedition into the Congo in 1961 seemed to be the exception which ought to prove the rule.

But the doctrine of non-interference in internal affairs has now simply worn out. The reason for this is simple. Night after night citizens across the world see in their own living rooms the horrors of which men are capable. They are no longer prepared to accept that nothing can be done simply because horrors occur within rather than across the boundaries of a nation state. No adequate doctrine has yet been established to justify international intervention in such cases - it simply happens. The recent hyperactive French aid minister, Bernard Kouchner, coined the phrase "Le devoir d'ingerence". The international community has, according to him, not simply the right but the duty to intervene. But when? The Secretary-General of the UN would restrict the right to intervene in cases where internal horrors threaten to overflow across a frontier and create a danger to peace in the region. This would cover Rwanda, conceivably Bosnia, but not Somalia, Liberia or Angola. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Prof Sadako Ogata, would define the duty of intervention as covering any place where the slaughter was on a scale amounting to genocide. In practice there will never, in my view, be a universally applicable definition. The international community intervenes haphazardly, and this is inevitable. The US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, describes this as "different strokes for different folks". The UN will not feel held back by Article 2 (7) where it can see a possibility of useful intervention. Neither will it feel compelled to intervene in cases where the possibilities of successful intervention do not exist.

Here, too, a model may be emerging to become a standard. After years of confusion, the present international effort in Bosnia is well organised. The UN gives the auth- orisation that is essential under international law. The work on the ground lies in the hands of the regional organisation, Nato, which has drawn into the action other countries outside Nato in a new "coalition of the willing". This force operates on the foundation of the Dayton Agreement to which all the parties in Bosnia consented. But it does not need to seek consent for every move on the ground which it makes.

We may find the powers needed by the international force in Bosnia need to be strengthened, for example in dealing with alleged war criminals. Next door in Eastern Slavonia the UN runs, for the time being, a district of 150,000 people, recruiting the police and organising public services. This regime comes closer to the concept of trusteeship which may be needed from time to time when the international community is faced with countries which have collapsed. The co-operation between the Security Council on the one hand and an effective regional organisation on the other is not yet proven in Africa, where the need is greatest.

South Africa, for understandable reasons, has shown itself somewhat reluctant to take its natural leading place south of the Sahara. Nigeria is active in this role in Sierra Leone, but so long as Nigeria is itself under harsh military rule it is not going to be accepted as a mentor for others. So we have a long way to go. But that is different from despairing of progress. It is a mistake to regard international society as a glass palace descended from heaven. If that is the ex- pectation then there is bound to be despair at each broken window or fouled doorway. It is better to regard ourselves as constructing, brick by brick, with setbacks, some sort of shelter from the foundations upwards. The architecture of this structure is erratic and its material often defective - but we can take pleasure when even now it occasionally provides shelter from the storm for groups or nations under threat. They buy and sell fruit peacefully today in Sarajevo market place. It should be our aim to keep things mainly that way.

The author was Foreign Secretary in the last government. His three-part series,'The Search for Peace', begins on BBC2 this evening at 7.45pm.

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