Leading Article: Pique versus power at the UN

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IRAQ and Bosnia are testing the ability of the United Nations to respond to new types of crisis. The test is not going smoothly and will be made more acute by yesterday's armed confrontation with UN forces in Bosnia. Both conflicts are raising awkward issues and contributing to friction between the secretariat of the UN and the permanent members of the Security Council.

In the Iraqi conflict, it is freely admitted that enforcement of the proposed exclusion zone will not be covered by any UN resolution. The resolutions relating to the Gulf war authorised the reversal of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and imposed ceasefire terms relating to disarmament, compensation and demarcation of frontiers. In March the Security Council condemned Iraq's failure to comply but did not authorise military enforcement. Resolution 688 called on Iraq to stop repressing its population but still did not authorise force.

That this resolution has been violated in southern Iraq was formally established last week by Max van der Stoel, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, but military action is being justified by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, on the grounds that international law recognises extreme humanitarian need. 'Not every action that a British government or an American government or a French government takes has to be underwritten by a specific provision in a UN resolution, provided we comply with international law,' Mr Hurd said this week.

In Bosnia a split has also opened up between the UN and allied governments. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees will accept technical and logistical help, but it objects to working with forces equipped for offensive action for fear of jeopardising its neutrality. Nor is the UN eager to cover itself by giving blue helmets to allied forces over which it has no control. In fact, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, would like to wind down the UN operation because it is unable to perform a real peace-keeping function.

The underlying issue is control. Mr Boutros-Ghali would like the UN to become a more effective world policeman. He would like member nations to allocate units to the UN for deployment on demand within 24 hours instead of having to negotiate forces and finances for each operation. But large member states, particularly the United States, are reluctant to put their troops under foreign command, while smaller states fear becoming instruments of the great powers, so the project is unlikely to be realised.

The fact is that the UN can be only very little more than the sum of its parts. There is no way it can function effectively if the secretariat is at odds with larger powers or the powers are in conflict with each other. Freed of the paralysis of the Cold War, it has another chance to prove itself, but it still depends on a reasonable level of consensus among its members and on the co-operation of permanent members of the Security Council. It will suffer if the secretariat tries to set itself up in opposition to its most powerful members or if those members habitually find it easier to bypass the UN. At the moment, both trends are apparent. The splits that are opening up as a result threaten to weaken the organisation at a time when its strengths are most needed.