Letter: Limitations on the UN's effectiveness

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The Independent Online
Sir: Jon Leyne, who, as the BBC's United Nations correspondent, speaks with a great deal of knowledge, argues powerfully (Letters, 28 December):

If the UN has been ineffectual in dealing with the internal conflicts in the former Yugoslavia or anywhere else, it is because the UN's member states have not been willing to put enough energy into solving the problems.

Reluctantly, I beg to differ, or at least to put the matter differently.

Of course I agree, strongly, that the UN has a reputation which no other body can equal, and skills in peacekeeping and mediation nobody else can offer. However, the UN's current tasks raise three central problems which led me to conclude ('All the troubles of the world on its shoulders', 21 December) that simply calling for more commitment by states to the UN may not be enough.

First, a familiar problem of all proposals for collective security: states, including the major states, see matters differently. While there has been a remarkable identity of view in recent years on certain issues, we cannot expect that to survive in all crises. In Russia, for example, there is a strong and understandable tendency to view Serbia much more favourably than we do.

Second, and equally familiar, is the problem that states are reluctant to risk the lives of their soldiers for causes that seem distant and complicated. Typically, the UN members most directly involved seek to act by means - sanctions, air exclusion zones, peacekeeping forces and so on - that involve only limited risk. Calls

for 'redoubled commitment' to the UN are not likely to end

the nervousness of states about committing themselves more deeply.

Third, the UN, through Security Council resolutions, has been landed with tackling a series of inherently difficult issues, of a kind that has often defeated the best efforts of the international community. In Angola, Cambodia, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, it is having to deal with bitter civil wars, in circumstances where political systems, and in some cases borders, lack legitimacy. While the UN has had some successes in conflicts of this type, it is not likely to succeed with all.

Moreover, tackling them is not just a matter of committing the best troops and diplomats, necessary as that is: in some cases it may also require very hard decisions about either getting more directly committed, in something like a trusteeship role, or else accepting that some conflicts are beyond the power even of the UN to resolve.

Yours faithfully,


Balliol College


28 December