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The Silence of the Security Council
in the 1990s
Why did it fail to deal with the
most destructive conflicts?



Jan Oberg

TFF director and co-founder


Thirty-one year old Virgil Hawkins' dissertation is a treasure of information and solid analysis at a time when the largest reforms of the United Nations since its establishment are being discussed. Although not his aim, Hawkins's book could be said to make the case for the most important UN reform of all: learn from earlier mistakes and get engaged in the most important conflicts; take on the conflicts that cost many human lives and make, finally, the UN an organisation for all humankind not just for the few.

The truth Hawkins tells us is this: the Council has failed miserably to respond to the conflicts that cost most lives and concentrated on minor ones - because of members' narrow interest policies. Globalisation takes place in the economic and military spheres of international society - but there is not yet anything resembling a globalised ethics or conflict-management.


Peace enforcement and the definition of war

By peace enforcement Hawkins means the use of limited force (or the threat of force) to coerce parties to a conflict to abide by their agreements or UN Security Council resolutions. His focus is the conflicts in the 1990s, i.e. the period in which this tool became more available to the Council.

And his basic assumption is that a conflict's importance should be measured by, broadly speaking, the number of people who perish over time. His definition of conflict is close to that of SIPRI's but differs from it in that he includes also non-violent conflict-related deaths, i.e. not only those killed by bombs and bullets but also the victims of, say, conflict-related starvation and disease - in other words, war's long-term social or societal function. This is important because we know from cases such as Somalia and the Sudan that the use of starvation as a weapon in war zones is important.

Also different from other studies, Hawkins counts deaths cumulatively rather than the number of deaths or wars per year. And then he goes meticulously through the difficulties in getting reliable data and comparing them. For instance, he points out, that when NATO rallied support for its bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the U.S. State Department implied that the number of Kosovo Albanian casualties at the hands of the Yugoslav army, police and militia was between 100,000 and 500,000. Five months of investigation after the bombing revealed 2,018 bodies. So war propaganda is another very important factor to take into account - which is the reason that Hawkins bases his study on an impressive amount of different data (and sums them up in original, illustrative self-made graphics at the end).


Which were the really serious conflicts in the 1990?

So what does he tell us? That 89% of the war dead in the 1990s were found in Africa, 5% in Europe, 4% in Asia, 1% in the Middle East and 1% in the Americas. More than 5 million people died in the wars in Africa, 1,3 million in the DRC and 1,1 in the Sudan alone. Says Hawkins, "Conflicts consistently portrayed in the media as major conflicts, such as those in Kosovo (8,000-9,000 deaths, 2,000 of which occurred prior to the NATO bombing), Israel-Palestine (2,710 deaths), East Timor (1,000 deaths), Northern Ireland (fewer than 400), were in fact, relatively speaking, extremely minor. The level of deaths in some of these conflicts is less than one-thousandth of that in some of the major wars."

The Great Lakes was, he says, "the most conflict-prone region based on the level of conflict in terms of deaths" anywhere in the world. And this is how the conflicts can be ranked:

DRC, Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, Zaire, Burundi, Bosnia, Liberia, Algeria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Tajikistan, Russia (Chechnya), Ethiopia, India (Kashmir), Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Iraq (Gulf War), Azerbaijan, Turkey, Peru, Congo, Columbia and Croatia - the latter being so central for European affairs, media and the UN.


Blurred mandates, national interest and other causes of the malaise

The reader will gain many insights from Virgil Hawkins's careful study of the Security Council, the level of its responses, the mandates given - and not given - to deal with the world's conflicts. His discussions - partly based on interviews with diplomats at various missions to the UN - of issues such as unrealistic mandates, the (mis)use of force and what is called mission creep, all land at the right spot. Here is an example of Hawkins' style and punch:

"The Security Council did an untold amount of damage to the credibility of the UN peacekeeping operations by adopting mandates that sent peacekeepers into conflict zones in which there was no peace to keep; the deployment of peacekeepers into an active conflict is obviously a contradiction in terms. This was particularly the case in Somalia and Bosnia, where the situation demanded mandates for peace enforcement, and the presence of peacekeepers were clearly inappropriate. On the consequences of such a decision, General Sir Michael Rose noted, "Where conditions for peacekeeping are not met, but peacekeeping as opposed to a peace enforcement operation is mounted anyway, there is the very real danger that the result will be, at best, 'mission creep' in its worst sense, and at worst, paralysis [sic] and accusations of impotence being levelled at the commanders on the ground and at the UN as a whole." UNPROFOR in Bosnia suffered from both results." (p. 106). And about the peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone in 1999, immediately after Kosovo, Hawkins says that it showed "how little it [the Security Council] had learnt from its troubled experiences in blurring the line between peacekeeping and peace enforcement."

Hawkins' analyses lead him to conclude that what most often stand in the way are national interests among powerful member states - interests in getting the UN engaged (and making it fail by blurred mandates and making ridiculous insufficient contributions to the decided missions, one may add) and interests in avoiding that the UN, i.e. the world community and conscience, gets involved in a conflict. And then there is sheer ignorance and indifference, particularly when it comes to conflicts in Africa, as shown above.

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Media at war

Hawkins also discusses the so-called CNN Factor. His conclusion is that the media cannot change priorities of governments but reinforce them beyond proportions and they can also, by neglecting certain facts, perspectives and whole conflicts, add to the world body's indifference vis-à-vis human suffering. Generally, the media focus intensely on only one or two conflicts, and those which are of political or other interest to leading Western countries and where they are engaged. The out-of-any-proportion media attention to Kosovo in 1999 at a time when wars were about to rage or actually raged in the DRC, Ethiopia-Eritrea, Sierra Leone speaks for itself, and is backed up by both reference to media analyses elsewhere and Hawkins own study of the coverage of these conflicts at the time in the New York Times.

Here, perhaps, one would have liked to see a deeper account of what might be called the military-government-media complex, encompassing the ever increasing influence of "consultancy" forms and marketing corporations that are paid to take part in psychological warfare and drive public opinion into support of this war or that. I am inclined to think that Hawkins here underestimates not the media but the use by various actors of the media. Anyhow, this is not a study of media and war.


The UN must choose, but not on these criteria

Be this as it may, Hawkins does not - naively - arguing that the UN could get engaged in all conflicts around the world and succeed, if only. There are many reasons why the world, including the UN, is not a perfect place, and probably cannot be. All problems and conflicts can not be addressed and solved so selectivity can hardly be avoided. One reason is that it is hard to strike a balance between peace and justice. Another is physical, practical limitations, lack of the necessary resources such as airlift capacity and logistics. Countries that "ought" to accept UN peace operations on their troubled territories tend to not do so because of being afraid of losing their sovereignty (and, we may add, their war leaders fear losing their power). If we think of a ratio of, say, two to six peacekeepers per thousand inhabitants, about 40,000 should be deployed to Angola and over 200,000 to the DRC, etc. It is simply not possible. But we could do better than we do, Hawkins reminds us.

His excellent book raises the question, therefore: given that we can't do everything we should in all the trouble spots of the world, what should guide us instead of the present narrow(minded) national interests among the strong, biased media attention and sheer ignorance about the proportions of human suffering?

If we begin to grapple with that question, there would not only be a discussion of reforms of the UN but also of reforms within each member state - on how to honour its commitment to the world body and its visionary Charter. And that would change the world.


Six excellent proposals for a better UN: Will anybody listen?

Fortunately, Hawkins towards the end of the study - which, by the way, is about half analyses and half documentation of the conflicts, the UN mandates and SC resolutions - draws some excellent conclusions. But not only that - where most PhDs stop - he moves on to offer six very well argued and, I think, wise recommendations:

1. Greater utilisation of diplomatic power by members of the Security Council.

2. Greater development of regional peace enforcement capabilities.

3. A more balanced handling of foreign affairs in the news media.

4. Greater use of 'celebrity' peacemakers.

5. Cautious use of robust peacekeeping.

6. Robust capability before robust mandates.


The conclusions of this study are sad: the world community's leading decision-makers operate on indifference to human suffering where it matters most and use the UN peace-making role mainly for their own purposes.

Given this fact, Hawkins recommendations seem to me to be a new and much better Agenda for Peace than the old one that did, in effect, lead to so much of the intellectual and moral trouble for the UN the 1990s by blurring the distinction between peace-keeping (basically non-violent) and peace enforcement (bombing powerful actors don't like, to put it crudely).

The world should listen to the message of this little-known study from Osaka University by an Australian who now serves as adviser to NGOs such as the Association of Medical Doctors of Asia and presently serves as a humanitarian worker in Zambia, in Africa, the place we should all pay much more attention to - if human suffering and peace is important to us.


Virgil Hawkins
The Silence of the UN Security Council.
Conflict and Peace Enforcement in the 1990s
European Press Academic Publishing, Firenze, Italy
ISBN 88-8398-026-3
316 pages, 30,00 ¤

Order the book from the European Press Academic Publishing.


© TFF & the author 2004  



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