By Jonathan Power*
With unanimous approval in the Security Council, the UN, over the course of December, passed resolutions directed at seven different locations of conflict. Most of what the Security Council ordered doing was to the point. Even at a time of heightened antagonism between the West and Russia, the day-to-day work of trying to bring peace to many parts of the world goes on—from Somalia to Myanmar, from Syria to Yemen.
Moreover, the UN sustains 12 peacekeeping operations, seven in Africa, three in the Middle East, two in Europe and one in Asia. Altogether the UN deploys 63,000 troops and spends $6.4 billion a year on their work. The number of fatalities in current UN operations total 1589 soldiers. All the above happens without a veto by the big powers, suggesting that we have more harmony acting out on the world stage than the media give us to think.
These days the UN, hitting trouble in the face of massacres and the deaths of its peacekeepers, does not go into reverse. In Rwanda in 1995 it was said that the UN force appeared to have four gears, one for forward and three for reverse.
In Rwanda 800,000 people were massacred. An independent investigation by Ingvar Carlsson, the former Swedish prime minister, laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of the U.S. and British governments which, when the small contingent of Belgian UN peacekeepers were attacked and brutally castrated and killed, refused to allow the UN presence to be beefed up.
The report also faulted Secretary-General Kofi Annan who was then head of peacekeeping and Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Secretary-General, for not keeping the Security Council well informed.
Today there can be no defence. The Security Council is better informed, and the politicians in Western capitals, Moscow, Washington, Paris, London and Beijing are not so often in denial when conflicts in faraway places erupt. The work of peace-making and peacekeeping does get done, even if it often falls short of great success.
A useful perspective is added by the larger picture: wars are diminishing. As I set out to show in my book “Conundrums of Humanity—The Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Day” the number of wars has been falling for most of the last 150 years, albeit their intensity has been ratcheting up, mainly because of technological advances in the tools of killing and the anarchy in parts of Africa. Since the Second World War this process has accelerated and wars between nations are now exceedingly rare.
Even ethnic war, which seemed to leap upward at the end of the Cold war, has been on a steady downward track most years. The rapid spread of democracy and the astonishing strides forward of the human rights movement have all contributed. So, too, has economic advance and growing prosperity. Most wars are now fought in the poorest countries, and these are concentrated in Africa. If the UN and the African Union could get on top of these African wars, the world would be a very different place.
A study by Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University is, to use the current jargon, a “road map” of how we get from here to there. He destroys the shibboleths that these wars owe themselves to inequality (how come Brazil never has civil wars despite its atrocious inequalities?) or that it’s ancient hatreds (the history that matters is always recent history). What appears to matter most is if the economy is first poor and second that it is declining and is dependent on natural resource exports. Once a civil war is started in such an environment it is not easy to stop.
The war leaders tend to prosper in wartime even though society as a whole suffers. Central governments are weak and rebels, if they can get their hands on the source of these exports, especially if it is diamonds (as in Angola and Sierra Leone) or timber (as in Cambodia) can become rich and employ or intimidate under employed youngsters into joining their militias.
Collier concludes that while peacekeeping may be useful to dampen down a conflict the long-term solution is in addressing these causes. Progress has been made. UN members, as the Angolan war dragged on, did eventually become seized with the diamond smuggling issue and an international accord led to increased policing and scrutiny, which in turn appears to have been a factor contributing to the demise of important rebel groups in Angola and Sierra Leone. Too many companies have behaved—and still behave—like the French oil giant Elf Aquitaine which bought oil drilling rights from Congolese rebel groups enabling them to spend the money on arms.
Beyond this, the international community needs to lean more heavily on neighbouring countries that offer rebel movements sanctuary. It needs to be tougher on arms salesmen and the flow of arms. It needs to watch more carefully the financial aid from diasporas who live in the West. (The IRA could never have prospered without its American supporters.) Not least, international aid needs to be better timed. Collier argues persuasively that rushing in aid as is the usual practice immediately after a ceasefire is worse than useless. Then the country’s institutions are too weak to use it well. Major aid needs to be delayed a couple of years when economic and institutional recovery is underway.
What December’s unanimous Security Council votes show is that the world, despite its differences of opinion on Ukraine, could be made ready for such an effort. If this prescription could be delivered the global incidence of civil war will decline dramatically. Perhaps this could be the post-Ukraine cause that could unite the world.
* Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers.