State-Building Woes of the U.N.

A U.N. helicopter in Timor.

The first decade of the 21st century has not been a good one for the United Nations. The past 10 years have seen U.N. credibility take a serious battering. The international furor created by the Volker Report on the U.N. administration of the Iraq sanctions prior to the 2003 invasion, accusations of corruption against the previous U.N. Security General Kofi Annan's son, and allegations of financial impropriety on the part of the head of the Iraqi Oil-for-Food Programme were all a source of significant embarrassment to the United Nations.

Moreover, U.N. peacekeepers, who had been sent to help ensure the safety of civilian populations in war-torn areas, were accused of having engaged in rape and the forced prostitution of women and young girls in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since their arrival in Haiti in 2004, U.N. peacekeepers have also been accused of not only failing to protect ordinary Haitians from the death squads and colluding with extremist forces threatening Lavalas Party and Aristide supporters, but also of having been involved in a range of atrocities, including murder and rape.

To add to its woes, the failure of the United Nations to satisfactorily resolve the dispute amongst members of the U.N. Security Council regarding the invasion of Iraq dealt a substantial blow to the international legal order. The United Nations has become widely regarded by many outside the northern hemisphere as no longer a neutral organization. Many in the South argue that international law has become an instrument of neo-colonialist policy, with the U.N. at best a toothless body powerless to prevent this development, at worst a willing collaborator in this process.

This change in perception has led to a situation where the United Nations and its personnel have to engage in substantially upgraded security measures and precautions upon deployment to post-conflict regions. While in the past it is true that U.N. peacekeepers monitoring truces and maintaining regional security had frequently been targeted, U.N. personnel had in general been relatively free from such incidents.

The attack on the U.N. office in Baghdad in 2003, however, firmly removed any lingering shreds of doubts the organization might have had regarding the relative immunity of its personnel. As the decade drew to a close, the coordinated assault on a U.N. guesthouse in Kabul on October 28, 2009, which resulted in 12 deaths, confirmed that the organization was now vulnerable to being regarded as a legitimate target. Furthermore, the propaganda value of such operations, in terms of the media coverage they received, cannot have been lost on other groups contemplating similar action.

The targeting of U.N. personnel has raised questions about the continuing viability of the organization's operations in conflict areas. How can the U.N. ensure the personal security of its personnel while still expecting them to implement and oversee its operations? This dilemma became ever more evident after the Kabul attack when the U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon was obliged to announce the temporary evacuation of 50 percent of the U.N. personnel in Afghanistan.

And yet a mere two decades ago, as the enmities of the Cold War had started to slowly fade away, political leaders around the world had expressed their desire to create and foster a new international framework based on mutual cooperation.

Optimism soared ever higher when the military action launched by the U.S.-led forces, acting under U.N. Security Resolution 678, to expel Iraqi soldiers from Kuwait saw an unprecedented unanimity and coherence of action on the part of the global community. For many commentators the divisive political rivalries of the Cold War were a historical curiosity. The international community together with the U.N. would now be free to work together to establish a better and more secure world for all.

As George H.W. Bush remarked in a speech to congress in September 1990, "A new world order can emerge: a new era, freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace. An era in which the nations of the world, east and west, north and south, can prosper and live in harmony."

Today with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the optimism shared by so many political leaders and citizens of different states worldwide was but an empty pipe dream. At the time, however, the end of the Cold War and bi-polar global political structure was seen as providing the opportunity to reassess many of the standard practices and traditional norms of international relations. In this respect the United Nations was no exception and the organization engaged in an intensive internal and external review of its policies, structures and programs.

The U.N. also began to call into question hitherto sacrosanct international legal principles such as state sovereignty, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states, and the prohibition on the use of force in peacekeeping missions. Implicit in these developments was the expanded role that the U.N. would potentially play in the future not only in maintaining peace, as had predominantly been the case in the past, but also in directly engaging in state-building activities in "failed states."

At its creation, the U.N. founding charter made no reference to peacekeeping, let alone state-building. However, in 1948, three years after its establishment, the idea of peacekeeping was introduced in order to help promote collective security during the Cold War. In 1956, the first deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, the United Nations Emergency Force, was dispatched to oversee the Israel-Egypt ceasefire following the Suez Canal crisis. In the early years, the U.N. adhered closely to the traditional idea of peacekeeping, which primarily consisted of monitoring truces and helping to stabilize the situation on the ground.

With the Cold War over, the U.N. began to expand its role in post-conflict environments, as the act of merely dispatching peacekeepers under the U.N. flag to monitor truces was regarded as insufficient to ensure lasting and sustainable peace. To prevent the possibility of failed states relapsing into conflict, greater support was required in the development of improved governance structures and legal systems as well as substantial capacity building support.

Consequently, the U.N. began to extend its range of support functions to include an active involvement—if not taking the lead—in state-building programs. Between 1989 and 1993, eight such missions were established in post-conflict countries, namely Namibia, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Liberia and Rwanda. In a relatively short space of time, state-building had become the U.N.'s primary security activity.

This growing involvement of the U.N. in state-building was also influenced by a number of other factors in the early 1990s. Although the end of the Cold War had reinforced peace and stability in the North, a number of states in the South remained in need of state-building assistance. Moreover, despite a drop in a number of internal state-conflict countries, due to their successful resolution these states now required state-building support.

U.N. state-building initiatives generally arise in two situations. Firstly, they are provided in the case of "failed states," that is, countries where "state apparatuses are unable to exercise full control over their respective territories, are unable to fulfill domestic and international development and legal obligations, lack effective national judicial systems to ensure the 'rule of law,' do not demonstrate the requisites of liberal democracy, and are unable to prevent their territories from being used in the perpetration of economic and other crimes."

The second case for state-building support is for those countries that are emerging from a period of domestic conflict. As the World Bank reported in 2006, some 20 million people worldwide lost their lives through civil wars with another 67 million being displaced. Moreover, 16 of the 20 poorest countries globally had endured a major armed domestic conflict. According to the World Bank these countries had become trapped in a vicious cycle where poverty was provoking conflict and conflict in turn was provoking poverty.

Despite two decades of U.N. involvement in state-building, there still remains a high level of uncertainty as to the precise role of the organization. This question is directed at how the U.N. might successfully make the leap from peacekeeping to its new expanded role in state-building, which includes a combination of peace-building, "consolidation," new governance and administrative support measures.

A major issue concerns the determination of where the mandate for such an operation lies. While it is clear that with respect to global security issues, such as the more traditional operations of peacekeeping, authority lies with the U.N. Security Council, state-building involves a far wider range of programs and activities. These include potentially humanitarian assistance at the initial stage and development support that would theoretically come under the purview of the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council.

To resolve this lack of clarity, efforts have been made to focus on governance, through which it might be possible to amalgamate the traditional functions of peacekeeping with the required socio-economic and political assistance to "consolidate" peace. Generally, this would entail the incorporation of significant capacity-building programs that emphasize good governance and the improvement of public-sector capabilities through the provision of the required technical assistance.

However, this approach has attracted a fair amount of critical attention. What exactly will these governance and public-sector management capacity building support mechanisms be comprised of? By whom will they be delivered? What will be the composition of such capacity building programs? Who will decide which programs should be financed and how needs and current governance capability gaps will be identified and prioritized?

In an effort to provide an overall strategic approach and coherence to state-building, the Peacebuilding Commission (PC) was established by world leaders attending the 2005 World Summit. A year later, in October 2006, the Peacebuilding Fund was launched to support the Commission's operations.

However, many observers have expressed their concerns regarding the neutrality of the PC, given the presence of all five of the Security Council's permanent members as full-time members. In an interview with ISN Security Watch, Johan Galtung, director of Transcend University in Romania, claimed, "The commission will act in the interest of the great powers—particularly the U.S. and the U.K. In ways, they are generations behind in their thinking on peace; to them peace-building equals maintaining the status quo, which will not lead to any peace where there are global and societal inequalities and injustices."

Moreover, despite the identified need for state-building assistance, the actual finance provided for such programs is less forthcoming. This funding shortfall places serious pressure on the U.N.'s state-building activities. The corollary of this is the leverage this situation provides wealthier, donor nations that possess the necessary resources to pay for such efforts. In exchange for their support they are frequently in a position to exert considerable influence to ensure the U.N.'s state-building operations are devised and implemented in line with their own policy objectives.

The obvious example, if also an extreme case, is the role the United Nations has played in Iraq subsequent to the 2003 invasion. Despite the offensive having been launched outside the ambit of the U.N. and without its backing, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1483 on May 22, 2003, which recognized the United States and the United Kingdom as "occupying powers." This resolution also opened the door for the United Nations to step in and assist in the building of new "democratic" structures.

The U.N. acknowledgement of their status as occupying powers brought significant benefits to the occupying countries. However, while the occupying powers might have profited from the United Nations' participation in the "reconstruction" of Iraq, this approach entailed considerable risks for the U.N. itself. By aligning itself with the occupying powers, the U.N. became a lightning rod for the discontent of their opponents. This danger became all too clear on August 19, 2003 when an attack on the U.N. office in Baghdad resulted in 23 fatalities.

Another controversial area in which the United Nations has become involved over the past couple of decades is its assumption of actual governmental powers in a number of states. Of particular note is the role the U.N. has played in so-called transitional administrations.

Transitional administrations have traditionally been established either when the previous state institutions collapsed due to conflict between various domestic factions, as in Cambodia and Bosnia-Herzogovina, or where such institutional structures did not exist at all, as was the case in East Timor, Afghanistan and Namibia. The invasion of Iraq and the subsequent involvement of the United Nations gave rise to a third type of transitional administration, one where the state in question already had a substantial level of human, institutional and economic resources.

U.N. involvement in transitional administrations has been criticized as, at best, a dubious application of the U.N.'s expertise. It has been argued that in order for the U.N. to successfully introduce new government structures and legal systems it has had to adopt an approach of "benevolent autocracy," whereby the concerned state and its citizens find themselves obliged to submit to the U.N.'s dictates in these domains. For many, this is totally contrary to the original mandate of the U.N. where the sovereignty of states was deemed more or less inviolable.

Why should an international organization such as the U.N. be allowed to determine the future political, economic and legal structure of any state? This issue is one of particular concern for those in the South who decry the setting up of systems and structures of governance that appear to be totally predicated on those of the North, irrespective of the relevant state's political, economic, social and cultural heritage.

In summary, it is evident that the U.N. record in state-building operations over the past two decades has been at best a patchy one. A great deal of U.N. problems lie in the failure of the global community, especially in the North, to allocate sufficient funds to support its programs. At the same time, and arguably linked, the United Nations has tended to engage in a rote application of state-building programs based on neo-liberal, Western democratic ideals. In order to regain the trust of states in the South, the U.N. must give more weight to indigenous and domestic political and socio-cultural practices and assist in the development of compatible government and administrative structures.

One must remember that the U.N. is not an independent or autonomous organization. Its member states decide what it can and cannot do. Unfortunately, it would appear that in this respect the more powerful states—not least through the Security Council—have been able to repeatedly influence how the U.N. has engaged in peacekeeping and, more recently, state-building operations.

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