Reappraising UN Military Interventions

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue 1 March - April 2016
Page No.: 
Vinod Saighal
Friday, March 11, 2016

Fresh thought needs to be given to UN military interventions in the light of what is happening in the Middle East and around the globe. There have been many such interventions in the second half of the twentieth century, running the gamut from large-sized interventions to small-scale ones. A majority of the earlier UN interventions took place in the “finding their feet” period of the newly independent nation states of the post-colonial period, after the end of the Second World War. The situation was exacerbated by the cold fog that settled in soon thereafter and which took nearly half a century to lift. What passed for consensus in the Security Council resolutions were essentially trade-offs between the major cold warriors who treated the UN as an extension of their proxy military rivalries being fought out in so many theatres.

UN military interventions of the twenty-first century have often turned out to be different from the peace keeping operations of the earlier post-war decades or the peace enforcement operations of the last decade of the twentieth century. To begin with the nature of warfare itself has undergone significant modifications, especially in Africa where many of the twentieth century interventions took place. A number of the nation states, or at least a majority of them, have settled in after long struggles, while other feuds have resurfaced. In either case the native military establishments involved in the struggles have developed considerable military prowess of a type that they have put paid to a modern day ‘Clive syndrome’ , wherein a few well-armed European mercenaries could help turn the tide in the countries in which they intervened; often facilitating outright takeovers.

Another factor that is influencing military interventions relates to the global increase in what can be termed as the ‘Ambient Lethality Index” (ALI). The ALI of the twenty-first century, which continues to increase with each passing year, will not only affect UN peace keeping operations, whatever be their nature, but law enforcement operations almost everywhere in the world unless a democratized UN is able to bring  about a sea change in transfer and sale of lethal weapons. The desired change can only be brought in through interactive harmony and not through selective (coercive) measures

The selective application of curbs, grandiloquently termed as ‘sanctions’, has muddied the waters of global harmonization. It has removed the rational base for international interaction. If the trend remains unchecked it could eventually undermine the very concept of jurisprudence on which the democratic functioning of human society is based.

There is a perceivable dilution in the respect and sanctity for protocols entered into. In the global arms bazaar, everything is available, at a price. Sanctions thereby reduce to becoming an irritant which merely serve to hike up the price. The result is there for anyone to see. It is reflected in the enhanced ALI. The arsenals of ordinary criminal gangs now include bazookas, grenades and secure communications. Going still further to terrorist groups and drug cartels the weapons sophistication has appreciated to include IEDs, mines, bazookas, night-vision devices, high powered boats, helicopters, aircraft, midget submarines and an host of other sophisticated devices which even many of the law enforcement agencies do not possess.

The havoc - resulting mainly from the uncompromising attitude of the military-industrial complex - which will be wrought by the phenomenal ALI increase would be far greater on advanced societies than on deprived populations. Restrictions on free movement to combat the deadlier menaces (well below the nuclear threshold) surfacing in every airport, seaport, bus terminal, metro line, railway station and an host of other places has become more routine and more cumbersome. All encompassing global harmonization measures entered into in good faith between all nations could conceivably put a halt to further ALI increases at this juncture.

‘Democratising Impositions’

The observations on the ground conditions that obtain for UN peacekeeping operations, if present trends continue, lead one to the conclusion that the time may have come to re-examine the first principles of UN military operations; and any other military interventions authorized by the UN. Just as the nature of warfare has changed the rationale for military interventions must be looked at de novo. One can even say that in this century military interventions have no justification unless they have been (specifically) mandated by a ‘democratized’ United Nations to meet a global threat or in keeping with principles which have been clearly enunciated for the maintenance of global harmony as well as to safeguard the ecological sanctity and diversity of the planet in the interest of the coming generations.

‘Pre-imposition Adjudication Mechanisms

The first clause of the UN military intervention charter should, therefore, state that no state may go to war with any other state by mounting a physical invasion of that state unless it has first sought an adjudication of the dispute from the reformed Security Council or a panel set up by the International Court of Justice for that purpose. In either case the final award, if not acceptable to either of the disputants, could again be appealed before a full bench of the ICJ. The acceptance of this principle by nation states, especially in cases where a status quo has operated for more than fifty years in territorial disputes, could change the course of world history. However, the problem of enforcing such a world resolution would lie more with non-state actors and lesser states still in the process of state formation or democratization rather than with states and groupings that have matured into stable global entities contributing to the global equipoise of the third millennium. Therefore, military interventions by the UN, or those sanctioned by the UN, should normally be restricted to the unstable regions of the world where democratic governments have not taken root and change of government is brought about by the bullet rather than the ballot.

‘Cordon sanitaire’ around Minor Conflict Zones

Many of the conflicts of the twentieth century became unnecessarily prolonged due to outside interference.  For small-scale bushfire type of conflicts, which do not have the potential to become full-scale wars involving the whole region or spreading beyond, the UN could evolve strategies for: in the first instance, excluding outside interference; and for putting a cordon sanitaire around the conflict zone to effectively prevent enlargement.

Weapon Exclusion

Weapons exclusion would apply locally as well as at an international level. Once a weapons embargo has been mandated by the democratized UN it would be universally respected. Gunrunners and other non-state actors might still attempt to exploit the situation. In all such cases a standard (and transparent) global UN directive for action to be taken against violators of UN weapons-related embargoes would be deemed to be automatically operative. Violators would face prosecution as war criminals before the International Criminal Court. Separate refugee zones to be created under a UN military administration to oversee and coordinate the work of all relief agencies. Standardization of procedures for small-sized interventions would go a long way in allowing for advance planning and anticipatory actions by all nations in the region as well as the missions of all states in the country or countries concerned.

‘Reason’ over ‘Coercion’

While dealing with the bigger conflict situations the guiding criterion should be that where a status quo has remained for over fifty years that status quo should not be disturbed as far as possible. In other cases conflicts can be resolved by the entire global fraternity of nations acting concertedly in an engagement mode to establish the supremacy of reason; as opposed to the past practice of coercive (and partisan) diplomacy, undertaken in the most underhand manner.

Force Selection

The quality, quantum and the operating ability --related to ground conditions -- of the forces to be deployed for carrying out the UN mandate should also be gone into coolly and clinically.  Without ruffling any feathers the primacy of the task to be carried out and the maximization of the chances of success with minimum loss of life -- both for the locals and the UN forces -- would remain prime considerations. The angst of nations carrying historical burdens of success or failure in military operations in other places at other times should not be allowed to play any part in the selection of UN forces.

Mission Objective and End State

The strategy for restoring the status quo ante -- or whatever the desired end for restoring peace in the conflict area -- spelled out to the UN force commander and the civilian administrators assigned to the area should include the limits to military actions on the ground as well as the aims of the UN Security Council for the post-pull-out phase. Should the UN intervention prove successful, enough safeguards should be put in place, both nationally and internationally, for maintaining peace in the area after the pull-out.  Interests inimical to the restoration of peace should not be able to fill in the vacuum created by the departure of UN forces. In sum, the UN intervention should not have been an exercise in futility.

Costs and Liabilities

Keeping the UN peacekeeping expenditure within limits demands a fresh look at ways to curtail expenditure as well as to recoup the expenditure to the extent possible. In the case of compensation to governments or families of soldiers killed in action the concept of group insurance for the personnel of the entire force should be gone into. By inviting bids from insurance companies globally the outflows for this could be considerably reduced.

Coming to new methods for financing UN operations it would be worth examining the imposition of a UN peacekeeping tax on non-national concessionaires operating in the area. Such concessionaires could be the old concessionaires driven out by turmoil or new concessionaires wishing to step in. Without going into details the negotiations for obtaining maximum returns for the UN, possibly over a period of years, could be left to the managers of a Global Reconstruction Fund (GRF).

With the globalization brought about by the new information technologies it would be possible for the Secretary General to monitor effectively the global hotspots in the coming decades. Without adding to the UN infrastructure a small nucleus would be able to plug into the data available through remote sensing satellites. Similarly, it should be possible to network with think tanks, specialists, environmentalists and intelligence agencies worldwide to keep tabs, in real time, on situations that could fast deteriorate if not attended to with alacrity.  Concomitantly, anticipatory warning could be sent to states from where aircraft with military supplies could take off or land. Similar anticipatory cordoning action could be taken at seaports, railheads and other terminals from where arms could be sent into the conflict area. A host of other anticipatory measures to limit or prevent the outbreak of hostilities could be taken.