Leading Article: A benign imperium

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THE United Nations' record in Somalia is a rotten advertisement for the new world order that was discussed with such easy optimism in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism. The world body has been slow, secretive, inefficient and cowardly in responding to the total breakdown of internal authority. It has accepted the emergence of local warlords whose gangs exploit the plight of the starving and prey on aid workers attempting to distribute emergency provisions.

The UN has so far taken the rather supine view that its representatives do not have the authority to use force to ensure that food and medicine reach those who would otherwise die. In any case, it has been argued, firm measures would, by provoking the gangs, render more difficult the task of aid workers. Senior UN officials on the spot who publicly expressed their alarm at the inadequacy of the organisation's response to the catastrophe were reprimanded and removed.

Things may be about to change for the better. The Security Council will this week consider an American offer to supply up to 30,000 troops to protect and distribute emergency aid in Somalia. The Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, yesterday endorsed the use of force. There are suggestions from some members of the outgoing Bush administration that the United States would thus have accepted the need to create an indefinite UN protectorate in Somalia, whatever the objections of the warlords and those nominally in charge of parts of the country.

Such an initiative would be a welcome recognition of reality. A short, sharp intervention by American or other troops, acting under the auspices of the UN, might suffice to bring food and care to the needy. But Somalia would once again fall apart as soon as the soldiers were withdrawn. If it is to be effective, UN intervention will have to be prolonged, and should be implemented on a scale grand enough to signal that a fundamental change in international attitudes and law has occurred.

The concept of absolute national sovereignty has already been severely eroded in recent years. The UN ignored the protests of Saddam Hussein's regime and intervened in Iraq to protect the Kurds, and later the Shias in the south of the country. There is growing support for armed UN operations to deliver food and medical supplies to those in dire need in Bosnia. But the idea of imposing formal and continuing UN mandates on once- sovereign states - first referred to by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, as an 'imperial role', in an interview with this paper two months ago - goes far further. UN protectorates would continue for years and involve the nurturing of a democratic political infrastructure and the training of a technical and managerial elite able to run the country once the mandate expired.

This benign imperium would be predicated on two beliefs. The first is that there are occasions when national law and order break down and the state has effectively ceased to exist. Outside intervention is then justified. The second is that the UN would sustain its commitments for long enough to see them reach fruition. It would be cynical and destructive for the UN to enter into long-term commitments which it proved unwilling or incompetent to complete.