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Collective Security—Posse or Global Cop?

Sir Kieran, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, delivered the Keynote address at the Warburg 2000 Conference luncheon at Simmons College February 29.


I SPEND MOST OF MY DAYS not as a cop or a posse member, but as the United Nations equivalent of a fireman—running from one blaze to another, from Guatemala and Haiti in the Western Hemisphere to such trouble spots as East Timor, Kosovo, Congo, and Afghanistan. But I believe that every practitioner of conflict management also needs opportunities for intellectual leavening, which is why I am here today, although sadly for a much shorter period than I would have wished.

I would have liked to listen to those of you who might want to make a case for the indispensability of unilateralism in a post-Cold War world in which American exceptionalism remains as strong as ever. As an international civil servant, and by personal conviction, I take a different view. I intend to use this occasion to highlight some of the virtues and benefits of multilateralism and collective action and to suggest what role the United Nations can play in this regard.

I would like to put to you four main arguments:

     First, in an era of globalization and rapidly growing interdependence, devising an effective collective security system becomes ever more important. A collective security system in the twenty-first century must be based on a broadened definition of security—human security—as well as a redefinition of national interest to include common interests of the intemational comunity. Sovereignty, while remaining the cornerstone of the intemational order, has never been an absolute concept and is subject to constant change emanating from the twin pressures of globalization and the evolution of international law.

     Secondly, though far from perfect, the UN’s record is far from insignificant. This is immediately evident if one considers the invention of peace keeping and the great universal legitimacy and authority of the UN’s major organs (SC, SG, GA, ECOSOC, ICJ). There is also our longstanding experience and expertise in preventive diplomacy and peacemaking, as well as in the human rights and humanitarian field—not to mention our work in the economic, social and environmental spheres.

     Thirdly, although the UN plays a vital role in the peaceful settlement of disputes, such as in early warning, mediation, fact-finding, election monitoring, disarmament, peacekeeping, and peace-building, it neither plays, nor does it aim to play, the role of global policeman; in many conflicts other actors are in a much better position to assist in conflict resolution and enforcement. We are, if you like, a helper of last resort.

     Fourthly, and finally, there is a growing awareness that the international community must develop a new culture of conflict prevention. I would argue that my concept of collective security of the twenty-first century must include prevention as one of its core pillars. The UN is well placed to play a key role in this regard due to its universal membership and the broad range of expertise among its departments and agencies. This new international security concept has been one of the strategic priorities Secretary General Kofi Annan has set for the UN in the twenty-first century.

Let me now turn to the theme of the conference and expand on these four arguments. The title of this conference suggests that there are many who believe that collective security can only be achieved by a posse or by a global cop. But the world is more complex than this stark choice would have us believe.

The UN is indeed asked to act as a posse on occasion. But the organization neither aims at, nor does it have the capacity to become, a global policeman. There is no political will among member states to allow this to happen. What the UN can do is provide international legitimacy when military action becomes necessary. At the same time, there is a wide measure of agreement that enforcement actions like Iraq or Bosnia are best left to others acting under the authority of the Security Council.

The UN Charter is the nearest thing we have to a constitution of the international community. It includes the comprehensive prohibition of the threat or use of force (Article 2, para. 4 of the Charter). This allows for only two exceptions. First, the right of:every member State to individual or collective self defence if an armed attack occurs, but only until the Security Council has taken the necessary measures to maintain international peace and security (Art. 51). And secondly, Security Council action under Chapter VII of the Charter.

This far-reaching ban on the use of force in international relations has contributed greatly to the creation of a relatively peaceful world order since World War II. The fact that on occasion there are countries that violate the rules should not be construed as an indication that these rules or principles are useless or meaningless.

The UN neither has the capacity to address all conflicts in the world nor would it be wise to involve the UN in all disputes and wars. In many conflicts, member states, regional organizations,
civil society organizations or prominent individuals are much better placed to act constructively as a third party.

The UN has played and is playing an important role in preventing, managing, or resolving conflicts. Let me cite some statistics which demonstrate the scope of our activities in the world today:

  • As of February 2000, the secretary general had more than fifty special and personal representatives, envoys, and other high level appointments dealing with peace and security issues around the globe.
  • The UN is presently engaged in sixteen peacekeeping operations. From 1948–2000, the UN launched a total of fifty-three peacekeeping operations. Important recent examples of the last twelve months include East Timor, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and probably soon the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But does our scope of activities entail that the UN could play the role of a global conflict manager with universal enforcement powers and capabilities? I do not think so.

The UN neither has the capacity to address all conflicts in the world nor would it be wise to involve the UN in all disputes and wars. In many conflicts, member states, regional organizations, civil society organizations or prominent individuals are much better placed to act constructively as a third party. Northern Ireland (Senator Mitchell), the Baltic States (OSCE), and the Middle East (Oslo Peace Process) are cases in point.

Yet the UN can play a vital role in dispute settlement. Mozambique, Guatemala, and East Timor among others are testimony to this.

In the final analysis, the UN should be perceived as an authority of last resort for enforcement when all the most powerful nations in the world agree — the Security Council and particularly its five permanent members. In addition, and ultimately more importantly, the UN is becoming an emerging focal point for preventing conflicts.

In this context it should be stressed that overall, military enforcement is for the most part, a very blunt tool.

  • It can only be applied effectively in the rare cases when aggressors can be distinguished clearly from victims.
  • It often leads to conflict escalation and more destruction. This raises the question of proportionality between means and ends.
  • It has a very limited scope in terms of conflict resolution because military action per se does not solve any of the root causes of conflict.
  • It also requires a very high level of collective political will and very rarely receives the necessary majority or unanimity in the Security Council.

But in extraordinary circumstances, military enforcement will remain necessary to contain and manage conflicts that have got out of control and are clearly outside the Iimits of peaceful settlement of disputes.

AGAINST THIS background let me now turn to what I see as the collective challenges in the peace and security field.

The vast majority of today’s conflicts are essentially intra-state conflicts. This is a major change from when the UN Charter was drafted, when the emphasis was on preventing another bout of war between rather than fighting within states. We must develop better mechanisms and tools to deal with this comparatively recent phenomenon of intra-state disputes. Some of the main issues are the following:

  • Intra-state conflicts are extremely difficult to deal with by the international community as international law only provides a limited body of norms and rules for them.
  • Very often such conflicts involve non-state actors, such as rebel movements or mercenaries, making it extremely difficult to distinguish between aggressors and victims.
  • Often there are no clear front lines, making effective military intervention impossible.
  • Finally, as the overwhelming majority of victims are civilians, mostly vulnerable populations such as women, children, and the elderly, we have to find better ways to protect them.

As regards our normative challenges in the twenty-first century, the foremost task for the Security Council and to the UN system as a whole is how to forge unity behind the principle that massive and systernatic violations of human rights should not be allowed to stand. This has been stressed repeatedly by the UN secretary general.


Unless the Security Council can unite behind the aim of confronting genocide and crimes against humanity, we shall be betraying the very ideals that inspired the founding of the UN. Preventing and punishing these crimes is never a matter for one nation only. It is the duty of all humankind.

Until recently, when powerful men committed crimes against humanity, they knew that, as long as they remained powerful, no court could judge them. Now, an international norm is emerging slowly against the violent repression of citizen groups taking precedence over concerns of State sovereignty. It is becoming increasingly evident that no government has the right to hide behind national sovereignty in order to violate the human rights or fundamental freedoms of its peoples. The two UN Tribunals, the Pinochet case, as well as the recent indictment in Senegal of the exiled former President Habré of Chad on torture charges, are important steps towards the consolidation of this norm. This does not mean that the concept of sovereignty should be abolished. On the contrary, it remains one of the main building blocks of the present international order.

In the same vein, let me also briefly touch on the establishment of the International Criminal Court. With the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court on 17 July 1998 by an overwhelming majority — 120 states voted in favour of the statute and seven against — Iran, Iraq, Libya, China, Yemen, Israel, and the United States — the world has laid the foundation for the creation of a permanent International Court to judge the most serious crimes of concern to the international community: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and possibly crimes of aggression wherever and whenever they may be committed. As of February 2000, ninety-four countries have already signed the statute. The establishment of the International Criminal Court represents in my opinion a historic collective step towards human security.


We also have a major challenge on an international, regional, and national policy level. In order to make the future collective security system more effective, attention should shift from peace enforcement to conflict prevention.

Prevention is a better way of achieving collective security and ultimately sustainable peace than retroactive military intervention. The UN can play an important role in conflict prevention as the founding fathers of the Charter foresaw in I945. It is telling that the very first article of the Charter, Art. I para 1, bestows upon the UN the duty to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal to threats to the peace.” We should reinvigorate our common efforts to revitalize this landmark provision.

The concept of conflict prevention has also received high-level attention recently. It was major theme during last year’s General Assembly general debate and was also the subject of an open debate in the Security Council in November 1999. The G-8 in its foreign ministers meeting in Berlin in December 1999 has decided on its part to make conflict prevention a priority on its policy agenda in the future, stating at the same time that the Unite Nations remains central in this endeavour.

The case for prevention is compelling: In most cases the question is not whether or not to intervene militarily, but when it is the ripe moment for any kind of UN involvement or engagement. The earlier a conflict is addressed, the more likely it is that

  • conflicting parties will be willing to engage in constructive dialogue and refrain from the use of force;
  • conflicting parties will agree to third party involvement;
  • conflicts can be settled or resolved by peaceful means; and ultimately,
  • root causes of conflict are effectively and comprehensively addressed.

In its November 1999 debate the Security Council recognized the importance of building a culture of prevention and called for the development of a broad and comprehensive long term UN preventive strategy involving all the major organs and agencies of the system. Over the past two years, intensive efforts have been underway to foster a culture of prevention in the day-to-day work of the Secretariat and the wider UN system. To this end, practical mechanisms are being developed to strengthen collaboration for early warning and conflict prevention within the UN system and with major outside actors — in particular member states, regional organizations, and NGOs. In July 1998, for example, the secretary general convened an important meeting with heads of regional organizations which identified specific modalities of cooperation in the field of conflict prevention.

More effective ways for undertaking preventive diplomacy are also being developed. These include fact-finding missions, visits by special envoys to regions, the exercise of the secretary general’s good offices, and the establishment of “Groups of Friends” of the Secretary General composed of closely interested member states on specific conflict situations.

It is now also increasingly recognized that new conflicts cannot be prevented unless more systematic efforts are made to address deep-rooted economic, social, and other causes of conflicts. From this arises the concept of “peace-building,” which encompasses developmental and other multidimensional efforts that are carried out under a political mandate specifically intended to prevent the eruption or resumption of conflict. Many UN agencies, programmes, funds, and offices are engaged in long-term preventive development activities and are being integrated into a preventive peace-building strategy.

A major element for long-term, successful preventive peace building is the promotion of democratization and good governance, and human rights. The UN has provided electoral assistance to scores of countries, helping them to hold elections and referendums, draft constitutions, and uphold the rule of law. In this context, the UN is increasingly stressing the nexus between peace, development, democratization, good governance and human rights.

BY WAY OF CONCLUSION, let me make a few remarks about the indispensability of multilateralism in the current era of globalization and growing interdependence:

     • First, the UN does not strive for world government or even the role of global cop.

     • Secondly, in an era of rapidly growing interdependence, even a country like the United States cannot solve its security threats on its own. Moreover, security must be seen as a broad concept, including human rights, health, and environmental aspects. No single country can cope with these challenges unilaterally. Acting unilaterally in this new environment not only runs counter to the purposes and principles of the Charter, but also opens the Pandora’s box of abuse of the core pillar of the international order — the prohibition of the threat or use of force as laid down in Art. 2 para 4 of the Charter.

     • Thirdly, the League of Nations is a prime example of what happened when multilateralism fails to enjoy the support of many international players. The absence of some of the powers from the League, most notably the United States, ultimately resulted in its demise and contributed to the outbreak of World War II. Thus, if the major power do not actively engage in multilateral policies, they might run the risk of sowing the seeds of future catastrophes.

     • Finally, and however much some individuals and governments may stress the sanctity of state sovereignty, in an era of increasing globalization and proliferating transnational problems, the relevance and utility of the United Nations can only grow. This is not a boast, but an acknowledgment that often there is no alternative. The strength of the UN lies in its universality, which brings with it impartiality, neutrality, and inclusiveness. It is up to member states to make more effective use of the Organization and ensure that it lives up to its potential as envisioned by its founding fathers.

Sir Kieran Prendergast, a former career diplomat with the British Foreign Office, has been under secretary general for political affairs of the UN. since 1997.

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