Leading Article: The case for intervention

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The Independent Online
THE mess in which the Americans have become embroiled in Somalia is turning them against future military interventions of all kinds. This will have important implications for the United Nations and Europe, both of which must assume that any future peace- keeping or humanitarian operations may have to be conducted without the muscle that only the United States can provide. Bosnia will be lucky to see an American soldier, even if it reaches a peace settlement.

But because Bosnia has also been a deeply unsatisfactory experience for the UN and all those who have taken part in the operation, it will join Somalia in provoking a wider debate about the principles and benefits of intervention. Every member of the UN will now think carefully before becoming involved in anything similar again.

If this leads to general disillusion with intervention, it would be a pity. Many of the UN's 24 current missions are struggling to do useful work. What is needed is new thinking on the principles and practices of intervention.

The UN was set up to provide collective security against traditional acts of aggression. It was prevented from doing so by the Cold War. Now that it is free to perform its original function, it finds that the world has changed. Threats to peace and the security of members come from all directions: from civil wars, ethnic disputes and famines that create refugees or drag in neighbouring countries; from abuses of human rights that provoke conflict; from the diversion of rivers, the exploitation of resources, the acquisition of nuclear weapons, even sometimes from conditions imposed by the IMF. As a result, the doctrine of national sovereignty, which forms the basis of the UN charter, is being interpreted with increasing flexibility. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general, has gone so far as to say 'the time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty . . . has passed'.

In this complex world, UN missions find themselves not only monitoring peace accords but also trying to deliver food under fire, protect refugees, negotiate with warlords and supervise elections, all with antiquated administration, inadequate funds, confused instructions and flimsy legal cover.

It is going to be difficult to draw up a new set of rules to cover all the unpredictable eventualities that lie ahead. There is no substitute for better analysis and judgement in each situation. Nor will the UN be able to provide the sort of orderly peace traditionally enforced by empires, with varying degrees of injustice. But the UN still has the potential and the duty to uphold a basic framework of international law to which all its members can at least pay lip service. To do this it will have to adapt its doctrines and its operations.

One of the tasks of the democratic members in this process will be to protect the position that human rights have established on the international agenda. This is not only for moral reasons, but because in general the spread of democracy is in the interest of other democracies. Although President Clinton has made this idea the basis of his foreign policy, he may find himself constrained by public opinion to take a back seat. In that case it will become all the more necessary for Europe to play a larger role.