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Thursday, September 9, 1999 Published at 01:52 GMT 02:52 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Analysis: UN's tattered credibility

Timorese in Lisbon call for outside intervention

By Dr Jonathan Eyal

Whatever happens in East Timor in the coming days, one conclusion appears inescapable: the United Nations has, yet again, been discredited.

East Timor
The results of the internationally-sponsored referendum have been brushed aside by the Indonesian military, the UN compound has been ransacked and the blue helmets, those hitherto potent symbols of international order and authority, are being hurriedly withdrawn from the province.

A deadlocked UN Security Council and a massacre which continues unabated complete this sorry picture.

The situation increasingly resembles the ill-fated UN effort in Rwanda, when the international organisation promised to safeguard the local population, but made inadequate plans for the violence which ensued, hurriedly withdrew its personnel and watched as the genocide unfolded.

But the current crisis in Indonesia does not need to repeat the Rwandan tragedy; even at this late stage the UN could have its credibility restored, provided enough Asian countries are prepared to act.

Action justified

In many respects, the murders in East Timor justify international action more than the ethnic genocide in Kosovo.

[ image: Thousands of East Timorese have fled or are being driven out by the military]
Thousands of East Timorese have fled or are being driven out by the military
East Timor was never recognised by the UN as part of Indonesia; Kosovo was an acknowledged territory of Yugoslavia for most of this century.

There was no attempt to ascertain the view of the majority of Kosovo's population before Nato undertook its action; in East Timor, an internationally supervised referendum was recently held, and its results are clear enough.

Just as in East Timor, the UN was paralysed over Kosovo by Russia and China's opposition.

However, this obstacle was brushed aside by most European and North American governments, adamant in their belief that widespread violence should not be tolerated on the European continent.

There is nothing to prevent Asian and Pacific nations from repeating this example in East Timor - nothing, that is, apart from the countries themselves.

The reason that an operation is not mounted now is because China's objections cannot be ignored as they were in Europe, Indonesia is far more important than Yugoslavia ever was and Australia and New Zealand (the two nations ready to dispatch troops) are not considered by any of their neighbours as truly "Asian".

The UN impotence in East Timor is merely a reflection of the impotence of the Asians themselves.

The centrality of the UN for world security should be maintained, while regional organisations should provide the building-blocs of this security from below.

With time and if the concept is properly applied, the UN could acquire the common purpose and action which it currently lacks.

The Europeans understood this principle when they went to war in their continent earlier this year.

It is now time for the Asian leaders to do the same. As always, salvation for the UN lies in the hands of its own members.

UN divisions

Almost from its creation, the UN was paralysed by the East-West confrontation of the Cold War.

[ image: Many Indonesians feel the UN has meddled too much in the region]
Many Indonesians feel the UN has meddled too much in the region
It was therefore natural that, when communism collapsed a decade ago, hopes were high that the UN could become the truly global security institution.

These aspirations were always misplaced, for the ideological confrontation of the past only masked much more subtle and enduring divisions between member states.

A key difference remains over respect for human rights: as long as China is still ruled by the iron fist of its Communist Party, a global regime ensuring respect for such rights will remain a dream.

The idea that human rights are a central part of foreign policy is simply not accepted in many parts of the world.

A second fundamental difference paralysing the UN is over definitions of national sovereignty.

Europeans, now accustomed to pooling their actions because they are fully aware of the limited powers of their nation-states, do not take the concept of sovereignty too seriously.

Yet in most of Asia and Africa, national sovereignty remains sacred, the only safeguard against further wars.

Innumerable schemes were put forward in the last decade with the aim of overcoming such difficulties.

All have failed, mainly because they offered bureaucratic solutions to what are deep-rooted psychological and historic differences.

One proposal was to enlarge the membership of the UN Security Council, in order to reflect more equitably the world as it exists today, rather than the victorious powers of the World War II.

The concept is superficially persuasive, but it could result in an even greater paralysis in times of crises.

Standing army

By far the biggest efforts were put into improving the conflict-management mechanisms of the UN.

Paradoxically, the UN Charter itself envisages the creation of a standing army under the Organisation's command, with effective troops which could be rapidly deployed anywhere in the world.

The Cold War precluded their creation in the past, but could the project be resurrected now?

The answer is an emphatic no. An army raised and commanded by the UN Secretary-General would be regarded as a mercenary body.

Since no member state would bear direct political responsibility for such a force, everyone would call for its deployment in any small conflict around the world.

Far from being the answer to global security concerns, a UN standing army would become another excuse for doing nothing.

Despite all these difficulties, the UN has made huge strides towards mounting effective military operations.

A planning cell now operates in New York, with the aim of eliminating bureaucratic hurdles by providing a UN force with a more coherent command.

Many countries are training their military forces to operate under a multi-national environment. Some have even allocated specific units to future UN operations.

The author, Dr Jonathan Eyal, is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London

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