Calls Grow for Creation of Standing U.N. Army

By Marc Perelman

Published September 05, 2007, issue of September 07, 2007.
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United Nations - With the unchecked violence in Darfur exposing the United Nations’ continued inability to respond quickly to unfolding crises, several members of Congress have joined an international coalition of nongovernmental organizations in calling for a standing emergency peacekeeping force.

The envisioned U.N. Emergency Peace Service would be 15,000 to 18,000 strong and include not only military and police personnel but also engineers, relief workers and judicial experts. While most member states are reluctant to create such a permanent force, it has a measure of bipartisan support and legislation recommending its creation may be taken up by the House International Relations Committee this fall.

“We feel the U.N. does not have an adequate rapid response structure, and this could be the solution,” said Brian Baluta, a spokesman for Republican Rep. James Walsh of New York. Walsh, a former Peace Corps member, is co-sponsor of the bill supporting the U.N. force, along with Maryland Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn. Backers of the U.N. Emergency Peace Service, known as Uneps, say that their main objective is not to replace the growing number of U.N. peacekeeping missions but rather to address the lag time between deciding to send a mission and actually deploying the troops. The process can take months, and it often includes time-consuming negotiations among U.N. member states and within the U.N. bureaucracy.

The concept of a standing U.N. peacekeeping force has been around since the world body’s creation in 1945; however, due to member states’ concerns about preserving their sovereignty, it never materialized. Now a coalition of 37 civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Refugees International, Rainbow/PUSH and a variety of Christian groups, believes that conditions are conducive to the formation of such a force.

The coalition points to two developments at the U.N. as signs that the peacekeeping department, which has conducted a number of successful operations in recent years but is widely perceived to be overstretched, is ready to take on a more permanent mission. The department has quietly begun assembling a standing police capacity and a military reserve force. And two years ago, the world body adopted “the responsibility to prtect” principle, which provides a legal basis for humanitarian intervention by the U.N. in situations where a member state is unwilling or unable to stop genocide, massive killings and other human rights violations.

“Those changes within the U.N. system help explain why we believe this can be more successful this time,” said Robert Zuber, outreach director of the Global Action to Prevent War, a advocacy group. Zuber stressed that the proposal was “very flexible” and that it is aimed at plugging holes in the U.N. system rather than imposing a readymade solution.

In order to allay concerns among member states that Uneps would encroach on their sovereignty, the emergency force’s backers stress that it would be deployed only after an express authorization by the Security Council. Even some of Uneps’s strongest proponents, however, acknowledge that overcoming concerns about sovereignty may be an uphill battle.

“The idea is right, but whether it provides a magic answer is another question,” said Edward Luck, an American academic who was recently appointed as special adviser to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. “The main hurdles are political ones, namely whether the Security Council will agree to this and, especially, whether the member state involved would accept such a force.… The fact that there is a military component will be seen by many countries as a form of military intervention.”

Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, spelled out the need for a rapid[-]response structure in a speech prior to his departure last year. The former secretary general compared his job of building support and raising funds for each U.N. peacekeeping mission to that of a fire chief who is forced to raise money, find volunteers and secure a fire truck for each new fire.

A recent study by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and found that majorities in 12 of the 14 countries polled supported the idea of a standing U.N. peacekeeping force, including 72% of Americans. But translating such goodwill into reality is a “long-term effort,” said Scott Paul of Citizens for Global Solutions, Uneps’s lead advocacy group in the United States.

Selling Washington on providing funds for a U.N. project with a $2 billion startup budget and $1 billion in annual operating costs is a tall order, Paul acknowledged, noting Congress’s often frosty relations with the U.N. But the American government, he says, may be persuaded by the argument that the money saved on post-conflict reconstruction would exceed Uneps’s costs.

“I would be surprised if it was an issue, because people will realize that it saves both lives and money in the end,” he said, noting that Pentagon officials had expressed some interest in sharing the burden of peacekeeping operations. A study conducted in 2006 by the General Accounting Office concluded that U.N. peacekeeping is eight times less expensive than funding an American force.

But even those pushing for American backing of Uneps admit that while Washington’s involvement is crucial to creating the emergency force, too much support from an administration strongly distrusted by many U.N. member states may be counterproductive.

“We have to walk a fine line in order to build support in the U.S. and in developing countries,” Zuber said. “This sort of thing creates suspicion that Western countries want to use this for political purposes.”

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