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No more Mr. Nice Guy: new UN policy or a phase?


Louis Charbonneau

THE UNITED Nations appears to be working hard to shed its duck-and-cover image -- deploying attack helicopters in Ivory Coast, backing rebels in Libya and lecturing Middle Eastern leaders on how to govern.

But diplomats and analysts say it is unclear whether the unusually aggressive recent UN approach to some of the conflicts on its agenda indicates a metamorphosis into a tougher, more pro-active world body or just a brief phase.

For years human rights groups and UN member states have criticized the Security Council for approaching world crises with too little too late. Its swift response to Libya and tough strategy on Ivory Coast are undermining that image.

David Bosco, professor of international relations at American University in Washington, said the UN has gone through phases of decisive action in the past.

"With the authorization to use force in Libya and the aggressive end of the standoff in Ivory Coast, the UN is in a forceful period," Bosco said.

"The question will be how sustained this is," he said. "The organization has gone through these periods in the past and often faced either a backlash from members worried about the UN's assertiveness or has managed to overextend itself, as in Somalia during the early 1990s."

According to Philippe Bolopion of Humans Right Watch, both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council have set an ambitious precedent for future crises.

"With Ban more confident on human rights issues, and the Security Council finally living up to its responsibility to protect civilians at risk of mass atrocities, the UN appears stronger and has set new standards that it will need to uphold more consistently around the world," Bolopion said.

During the Cold War, the Security Council was virtually paralyzed due to the Soviet-US antagonism. When it ended, the five veto-wielding permanent council members began to cooperate and sent peacekeepers to the Balkans, Africa and elsewhere.

But the expansion of its involvements ran into trouble in the 1990s after the killing of US troops in Somalia depicted in the film "Black Hawk Down" led to a US exit. Then came the failure to halt genocidal massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia.

The new burst of UN assertiveness, during which Ban and Western council members have repeatedly invoked the doctrine of the "responsibility to protect," has left some analysts wondering why the United Nations has not taken a similar approach to other smoldering conflicts on its agenda.

One example is Sudan's western Darfur region, where for years rights groups have called for a Libyan-style no-fly zone to end aerial attacks by Sudanese government-backed forces against civilians and suspected rebels.

"Darfur needed this kind of muscular response back in 2003-2005," said John Prendergast, a former US official and co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group.

Other unresolved conflicts that the United Nations is involved in but are hampered by political deadlocks include Western Sahara, Cyprus and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

One council diplomat suggested that market relevance helped motivate the council to act in Ivory Coast and Libya. Libya is key for oil and gas markets, Ivory Coast for cocoa and coffee.

Not all countries are happy with an aggressive United Nations. South Africa's Ambassador Baso Sangqu said this week he was worried that French troops and UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast were overstepping their mandate to protect civilians and providing military support to rebel fighters.

"We are concerned about that," he told Reuters. "The UN should be impartial." Other envoys said they worry the UN may be getting into the business of "regime change."

A driving force behind the "No more Mr. Nice Guy" approach has been French President Nicolas Sarkozy, UN envoys say.

As the US government struggled with its own internal debate on how to tackle Libya, France pushed the council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to protect civilians, thereby aiding rebels rising up against leader Muammar Gaddafi -- a gamble that some UN envoys warn could still fail miserably.

In cooperation with Ban, France urged the council to take a tough stance against Ivory Coast's former president Laurent Gbagbo, who was arrested earlier this week, after a months-long stand-off during which he refused to cede power to his rival.

In addition to diverting attention from the French president's domestic troubles, diplomats and analysts say Sarkozy is eager to safeguard France's reputation as a key diplomatic player in North Africa and Francophone Africa.

But it's not just France. With Libya, Britain played a key role, and the Security Council could not have acted had the Arab League not called for intervention, preventing Russia and China from vetoing the Libya no-fly zone resolution.

With Ivory Coast, council member Nigeria helped France lobby for tough UN action but hit South African resistance.

Ban has also become more assertive in recent months. Analysts and diplomats say in the final year of his first five-year term as UN chief he has worked hard to shed his image as a timid bureaucrat afraid to offend powerful states.

His vocal stance on the popular uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere have earned him public rebukes from Russia and China -- though both are expected to back his re-election.

UN spokesman Farhan Haq was asked whether there was any connection between the former South Korean foreign minister's candidacy for a second term -- which diplomats predict will be successful -- and his approach to Libya and Ivory Coast.

"Those aren't related issues," Haq said.

Copyright Cyprus Mail 2011

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Geographic Code:6COTE
Date:Apr 15, 2011
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