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UN peacekeeping: the mirror should be polished.

The United Nations is like a mirror. It faithfully reflects the wishes, moods and positions of members. If the image displeases, the remedy does not lie in shattering the mirror.

Kurt Waldheim(1)

AT the beginning of 1992 some 11,500 men and women were serving in United Nations forces established for the pacific settlement of disputes under Chapter VI of the UN Charter. Within two years that number had risen to over 80,000, deployed in eighteen UN military operations worldwide, and the number continues to grow as fresh calls are made on the World Organisation in fulfilment of its role as guardian of international peace and security. This rapid and unprecedented expansion of its military activities has imposed severe strains on the UN's capacity efficiently to organise, control and conduct these operations, and inadequacies long evident to military men with experience of service under the UN flag have become more widely recognised, giving rise to much criticism, some of it extreme.

For example, a former UN commander in Bosnia, the outspoken Major-General Lewis Mackenzie of Canada, is reported to have said in Ottawa that the UN's efforts in the former Yugoslavia were a comedy of errors, marked by bureaucratic bungling and military incompetence.(2) More recently General Brent Scowcroft, United States Security Adviser 1989-93, in the course of a TV interview seemingly suggested a shattering of the mirror itself when he declared: 'I believe that there should be one country or some body like NATO in charge of the [UN] operation. That's the kind of command and control that I would like to have and not a UN-run operation. It's just too difficult -- the UN is simply not capable of running sophisticated military operations'.(3) He was speaking in the aftermath of the US's unhappy experience of participation in the UN operation in Somalia (from which US troops finally withdrew in March 1994), and was reflecting long-standing American disenchantment with the UN in general and its ability to conduct such operations efficiently in particular. But, even if a measure of delegation of UN authority may be pragmatic in some circumstances (as demonstrated by the involvement of NATO and the Western European Union in the Bosnia operation), it is neither realistic nor desirable for the Security Council to abdicate to the degree advocated by General Scowcroft its responsibilities as set out in the UN Charter, not least because political and military aspects of UN operations are inseparable, with the former over-riding.(4)

The need for provision to the Security Council of high level professional military expertise to ensure effective conduct of operations mounted in its name was foreseen at the outset by the UN founding fathers, who wisely stipulated in Article 47 of the UN Charter that:

1. There shall be established a Military Staff Committee to advise and assist the Security Council on all questions relating to the Security Council's military requirements for the maintenance of international peace and security, the employment and command of forces placed at its disposal, the regulation of armaments, and possible disarmament.

2. The Military Staff Committee shall consist of the Chiefs of Staff of the permanent members of the Security Council or their representatives. Any Member of the United Nations not permanently represented on the Committee shall be invited by the Committee to be associated with it when the efficient discharge of the Committee's responsibilities requires the participation of that Member in its work.

3. The Military Staff Committee shall be responsible under the Security Council for the strategic direction of any armed forces placed at the disposal of the Security Council. Questions relating to the command of such forces shall be worked out subsequently.

4. The Military Staff Committee, with the authorization of the Security Council and after consultation with appropriate regional agencies, may establish regional sub-committees.

The Article is succinct and sensible; what has gone wrong?

The answer has lain in Cold War rivalries between the United States and the Soviet Union and the latter's doctrinaire opposition (with which China was in sympathy) to the UN engaging in military activities, whether for peace-keeping or for other purposes. The consequence has been that for most of the past forty-five years the Military Staff Committee has been rendered impotent and its routine meetings (which nonetheless continued) a charade. Civilian officials of the UN Secretariat were obliged, faute de mieux, to step into the gap, notwithstanding their lack of military training and expertise. (Although assisted by a handful of military officers on temporary assignment, these were junior in rank and inevitably carried limited weight and influence in the counsels of the high-powered career civilian Secretariat.)

As members of the Organisation's Office for Special Political Affairs (to which logistic and other support was given by the similarly civilian-manned Field Operations Division), these officials displayed undev the direction of two Assistant Secretaries General acknowledged skill in cobbling together and mounting peacekeeping operations at short notice. But this seemingly successful improvisation concealed from lay view avoidable military nonsenses, which too often have been inflicted on UN forces in their early days and sometimes persisted long afterwards. It also generated an unhappy complacency at UN Headquarters in New York, epitomised in a senior UN official's comment that events demonstrated that UN operations could be mounted satisfactorily on an ad hoc basis without prior planning.

This attitude was naive in its failure to recognise that time and again military officers, not only in the field but also in troop-contributor countries, have been obliged to devote time, energy and ingenuity in wrestling with problems that should never have arisen in the first place, while their troops suffered unnecessary and sometimes severe hardship, resources were wastefully employed, and the very success of the operations themselves was jeopardised. Indeed, such were the shortcomings in New York that in its early days the second UN Emergency Force in Sinai (UNEF 2), established in 1973, was all but brought to its knees, and the mounting in 1978 of the Lebanon force (UNIFIL) was marked by comparable failures.

Those percipient enough to discern the adverse effect of the lack of a strong military voice at the heart of the Organisation included David Owen who as long ago as 1978, when British Foreign Secretary, told the UN General Assembly: 'We are prepared to see our doctors, agriculturalists, sociologists and economists working together and pooling their expertise within a UN institutional framework, but we are reluctant to see our generals and admirals and our strategic thinkers working within such a framework on behalf of world peace'.(5) Voices such as his went unheeded, for so self-confident had the Secretariat and successive Secretaries General become in their ability to organise and control UN military operations, that a disposition to regard the Military Staff Committee as an irrelevance took ever stronger root despite the clear terms of Article 47.

With UN military commitments having now so clearly outstripped the resources of the Office of Special Political Affairs, the remedy has been, not to breathe new life into the Military Staff Committee, but rather to establish a new 'Department of Peacekeeping Operations' at UN Headquarters. Under the direction of an Under-Secretary General, the Department consists of three geographical Divisions, an administrative and logistics Division (incorporating the old Field Operations Division), and a military Division, together with a Situation Centre.(6) This Department should put New York's handling of peacekeeping activities on a more satisfactory footing, but its military personnel, as before, are relatively junior in rank with no direct access to the Security Council, where the military voice remains muted. The Security Council should not accept this as good enough. With the ending of the Cold War and a new spirit of co-operation evident between its permanent members, the time has come to restore in full to the Military Staff Committee the responsibilities and functions so explicitly stipulated in Article 47 of the Charter -- what justification can there be for continued failure to comply with the clear provisions of this Article?

As a first step to this end a military officer of four-star rank and appropriate international experience should be appointed as Chairman of the Committee (on the model of the Chairman of NATO's Military Committee). This officer should be a member of the UN Headquarters staff, and serve additionally both as a link between the Committee and the Security Council and as Military Adviser to the Secretary General, to whom he should have direct access. The Committee would require the services of a small supporting military staff, which might appropriately be provided by the transfer to it of the military Division of the new Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Close co-operation between that Department and the Military Staff Committee will be essential, but so long as the former does not encroach on the latter's responsibilities as enshrined in Article 47 there should be no difficulties.

The appointment of a senior officer as Chairman of the Military Staff Committee resident at UN Headquarters would satisfy two further needs that hitherto have gone by default. First, to act as an informal link on military matters with senior military colleagues in troop-contributor countries; and second, to serve as a military father-figure in New York for UN force commanders in the field, who have long lacked an influential and professionally knowledgeable friend at court where military facets of their command are concerned.

The Committee's supporting military staff, the members of which would serve in New York on a rotational basis, might also be made responsible for furnishing the nucleus for its headquarters when a new UN force is to be established. The advantages of this are obvious -- the officers concerned will have been intimately involved in the planning in New York, will be conversant with the problems and situation, and above all will be available for rapid deployment.(7)

There is no need to modify past practice with respect to the chain of command of UN forces in the field, which has been well expressed thus: 'The Force will be under the command of the United Nations, vested in the Secretary General, under the authority of the Security Council. The command in the field will be exercised by a Force Commander appointed by the Secretary General with the consent of the Security Council. The Commander will be responsible to the Secretary General. The Secretary General shall keep the Security Council fully informed of developments relating to the functioning of the Force'.(8) With support of an effective Military Staff Committee provided to him through the Committee's permanent Chairman, the Secretary General will be enabled all the more efficiently to carry out this responsibility vested in him by the Security Council. (The arrangement whereby the Commander of the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia is not responsible direct to the Secretary General but subordinate to the latter's Special Representative has obvious drawbacks and is reported to have led to friction. While the arrangement may reflect the primacy of political aspects of UN operations, the chain of command elsewhere (Cyprus has provided an excellent example), where UN Force Commanders have worked happily hand-in-glove with the Secretary General's Special Representative while each remained responsible in his own sphere direct to the Secretary General, suggest a return to that practice.)

A problem highlighted by events during 1993 in the UN Somalia operation (UNOSOM), but not uncommon in other past and present UN operations, has been the unwarranted interference by some home governments in actions of their contingent in UN forces. For example, Admiral John Howe, Head of UN Operations in Somalia, has complained: 'Practically every contingent here has had the disease of national micro-management and control of operations. We had one operation that was stopped in mid-battle by a national capital. Well, that's absolutely nonsense in terms of trying to do the job'.(9) National contingents are accepted for service in a UN force on the understanding that during this assignment their members, while remaining in their own national service, are international personnel under the authority of the UN and subject to the instructions of the Force commander; that the functions of the Force are exclusively international; and that its members are required to act solely with the interests of the UN in view. Nonetheless, no government can be expected to allow its contingent to be employed for purposes or in a manner that run counter to national policy or standards of conduct, and it is usual for contingent commanders to be furnished with a national directive allowing appeal to the home government where they perceive this to be the case. But such situations and recourse to such action (which should never be taken without prior reference to the Force commander) should be rare; if the Military Staff Committee could function with its proper authority, they should be all but eliminated.

For all these reasons restoration to the Military Staff Committee of its full powers and role is the single most important step towards ensuring a more competent conduct of the UN's military responsibilities. The UN's own erstwhile commander of its forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lieutenant-General Philippe Morillon of France, commenting on the military inadequacies in New York, pointed to the existence of the Committee and added: 'I am not the first to say that it would be both possible and desirable to reactivate it'.(10) Further weight comes from Britain's Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who has said that 'the Secretary General needs a General Staff'.(11) The Committee has the full legitimacy of the UN Charter and must no longer be denied its proper role.

Essential though this step is, it will not alone cure all the ills that beset the conduct of UN military operations. As the armed forces of more and more countries are sucked into service under the UN flag, so the day-to-day problems that stem from differing languages, organisations, equipment (or lack of it), communications, staff procedures and methods of operation come ever more to the fore. Many of the resulting problems within a UN force can be and are sorted out over a period of time, but inevitably there is an initial period during which they are liable to prevent the force from operating to full effect. But it is during this initial period that the deployment of a UN force is likely to make its most important impact, perhaps setting the tone for months afterwards; if it can operate with maximum efficiency from the outset, this will be a major advantage.

This points to the second most important need -- the establishment of a United Nations Peacekeeping Staff College (on the precedent of the NATO Defence College). Such an institution would serve several purposes. Firstly, at higher level it could train both military and civilian senior personnel to fit them for appointments of responsibility associated with the UN's military activities of all natures -- peacekeeping, monitoring, observing, humanitarian work and disaster relief. Secondly, it could be responsible for studying and developing, with a view to harmonising, organisations, methods, procedures, communications, equipment, logistics and other matters (including the sensitive problem of intelligence) within UN forces. And thirdly, it could disseminate to all member states (and update as necessary) the outcome of these studies.

In the absence of such an institution some other organisations have attempted to fill the gap, notably the New York-based International Peace Academy (IPA), which from time to time has organised seminars on peacekeeping and in 1978 published a 'Peacekeeper's Handbook'. The seminars and similar activities serve a useful purpose and its Handbook was well received. But, because the IPA is not an official organ of the UN, it lacks authority and its influence is accordingly limited. In any case it does not have the necessary resources or access to ensure the proper ongoing study and up-dating that the rapidly changing international peacekeeping scene requires.

The four Nordic countries set a good example as long ago as the early 1970s, when they established their 'Nordic Stand-by Forces in UN Service'. Close consultation between the governments of all four led to agreement on a wide range of matters to ensure that their military contingents 'serving with the UN would operate together on common lines. A handbook incorporating factual information to this end was issued within the armed forces of all four nations, and biennial seminars for senior military and civilian personnel of all four were held. The benefits have been clearly demonstrated by the efficiency of Nordic units in various UN operations in the past twenty years. Other groupings of countries failed to follow their example and are unlikely to do so now. The establishment by the UN itself of a properly recognised and sponsored Peacekeeping Staff College is an obvious need. In terms of the UN's overall budget, its costs would be negligible.

UN military forces -- for whatever purpose they are established -- have become an ever more common feature of the international scene. Even if they do not always achieve all that is demanded of them, in most cases they have succeeded in limiting the fighting and reducing tension, have brought succour to communities in distress, and have averted wider conflict. In spite of acknowledged imperfections, they have become an internationally acceptable instrument for these purposes to which no satisfactory alternative is in sight. The urgent need now is to temper and refine the instrument to make it more effective for the future. The measures here advocated constitute a major step to that end.


1. In the Eye of the Storm, p.221, (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1985).

2. The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 January 1993.

3. 'Assignment -- Mission Impossible', BBC Television, 15 March 1994.

4. Different considerations apply to UN-authorised operations (for example, as in the Gulf) which an not per se UN-conducted operations.

5. UN General Assembly A/33/PV.10, 27 September 1978.

6. The lack until recently of a properly organised and permanently staffed Situation Centre at UN Headquarters gave rise to Major-General Lewis Mackenzie's much publicised scathing comments on the difficulty of contacting outside office hours or at weekends those in New York dealing with peacekeeping matters.

7. When UNEF 2 was established in October 1973, Lieutenant-General Siilasvuo of Finland, appointed as its commander, was obliged to improvise a Force HQ from UN observers who happened to be at hand. More recently the core of Lieutenant-General Morillon's HQ in Bosnia-Herzegovina was provided from fortuitously redundant elements of a NATO HQ in Germany; because they knew each other and were accustomed to working together, this gave his HQ immediate advantage.

8. UN Security Council S/12611, 19 March 1978.

9. 'Assignment -- Mission Impossible', BBC Television, 15 March 1994.

10. Speaking to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, London, 11 October 1993.

11. The Daily Telegraph, London, 18 June 1993.

[Brigadier Francis Henn, C.B.E., served for two years as Chief of Staff of the UN Force in Cyprus (and Commander of its British Contingent). This period included Turkey's military intervention in the summer of 1974.]
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Author:Henn, Francis
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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