Leading Article: The cost of a mandate

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THERE was no mention of 'mandates' or an 'imperial role' for the United Nations when Douglas Hurd and President George Bush addressed the General Assembly yesterday. Such phraseology - employed by the Foreign Secretary at the weekend in an interview with the Independent - would have been deemed provocative by many Third World leaders. Indeed, the initial reaction from some of them was that Mr Hurd's interview had confirmed fears of an American/European hegemony policed through the UN, cloaked in the rhetoric of human rights and a new world order.

The sensitivities of the Third World are understandable. The concept of the independent nation state in the modern sense is little more than 200 years old and has applied for most of this period largely to northern Europe and parts of the Americas. It is only very recently that small, underdeveloped or vulnerable nations have had any expectation of being left to their own devices, which is why their leaders savour their sovereignty and are jealous in its defence.

For much of the past two centuries large parts of the Third World were under colonial rule or, like Egypt, were in semi-colonial relationships. The system of mandates that flourished under the League of Nations survived in residual form until 1990, when Namibia gained its independence. During the Cold War, which was also the period of rapid decolonisation, both the United States and the Soviet Union came to command satellite and semi-satellite nations. Their leaders' human rights abuses and often bizarre economic policies were overlooked so long as they did not attempt to defect to the rival camp. Today, former client states are torn between fear of being ignored and distaste for what they would regard as arbitrary interference in their internal affairs.

Yesterday Mr Hurd and Mr Bush both stressed the importance of preventive diplomacy - the international community becoming actively involved in the affairs of nations facing grave problems before they reach the point of collapse. They argued that human rights were a legitimate concern of the UN because their absence could contribute to the collapse of countries and societies. They stressed, too, that Security Council resolutions on such matters must be obeyed. The implication was that early, interventionist UN initiatives - military as well as diplomatic - should be seen as a substitute for the imperial mandate, which Mr Hurd envisaged as coming into play only in extremis.

These are laudable priorities but are not a cheap or easy option. The new agenda will involve the provision of troops, material and logistical support and will make impossible demands on already stretched UN budgets. Mr Bush offered detailed promises concerning the former, but his recognition of the financial implications was perfunctory in the extreme. Meanwhile, the United States remains one of the biggest UN debtor nations. This does not signal seriousness of intent.