Ban Ki-moon won Washington’s support for the job of Secretary General on the strength of his campaign pledge to “reform” the United Nations. Last week, in his first official trip to Capitol Hill, Ban vowed that reforms would be “reborn” under his leadership.
More than a year ago the United Nations adopted the “responsibility to protect.” The General Assembly’s endorsement of this revolutionary principle removes blind reverence for national sovereignty as an excuse to look the other way when innocents are being wiped out. In elevating this principle, the nations of the world said that they prioritize the right of people to live over the right of states to do as they please. The question now is whether this pledge was humanitarian hypocrisy, or did they have something serious in mind?
As I outline in Darfur and Beyond: What Is Needed to Prevent Atrocities, the most important “reform” Ban can undertake is to convert these three inspiring words into a program of action. Reform faltered under Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan. But Ban has a chance to advance the reform agenda by linking it to the General Assembly’s endorsement of the responsibility to protect. The goal, as Ban himself said last week in Washington, should be to “operationalize” the responsibility to protect by building up the UN’s capacity to respond early and effectively at the first sign of concern.
The place to start is by building a more nimble and capable peacekeeping capacity at the United Nations. Despite steady improvement since the 1990s, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations still lacks the capacity to deploy troops when it counts. The absence of a rapid response capability is a problem that dates back to the UN’s founding. But the time may be right to address this deficiency head on.
First, Ban should advocate and Washington should support a proposal, now before the General Assembly, to create a pool of 2,500 civilians on call for peacekeeping missions. They would be available as a vanguard to reduce the lag between the Security Council’s authorization of an operation and the arrival of boots on the ground. Second, Ban should push for the establishment of an international strategic reserve of forces that could be designated by states to be available for peacekeeping missions authorized by the Security Council. Nations would train troops to international standards. Earmarked troops would exercise with one another. States would be compensated for their efforts, and would receive a premium if they gave formal approval for their forces, which would remain under each state’s national command, to be deployed to a UN mission.
In addition to building military capacity, the UN should build up its diplomatic resources, including expanding the role of the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in deterring and preventing atrocities, and clarifying the role of the Secretary General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention Genocide.
The United Nations can play an indispensable role, but it cannot act without the support of its members. President Bush famously scribbled “Not on my watch” in the margins of a memo about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and Washington was the first to label the mass killings in Darfur a “genocide.” Yet the President has yet to follow up this imperative with a formal directive to implement it. At the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should develop a program to institutionalize atrocity prevention into the normal work of the State Department. She should support the mission and activities of the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, lobby Congress to fully fund the activity, and invest in building an institutional capacity at the State Department for this critical mission. At the Pentagon, new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates should reaffirm support for fulfilling the recommendations of the 2005 Defense Department Directive, putting the stabilization and reconstruction mission on par with war fighting.
Along with the African Union, NATO and the EU should also shoulder their responsibilities. NATO, which acted to avert mass killings in Kosovo and has supported the African Union in Darfur, should formally adopt a role in preventing mass atrocities The European Union, which aims to create a 60,000-strong “response force” by 2010, should pursue this goal with the explicit end of creating an EU capacity to implement the responsibility to protect. Favoring “African solutions to African problems,” the AU has embraced the task of atrocity prevention on the continent, despite limited military capacity and political constraints. The AU should continue to solicit support in building capabilities in this area, and the U.S. should conduct a formal assessment of the best ways to provide it.
In adopting the responsibility to protect last year, the United Nations accepted the principle that mass atrocities which take place in one state are the concern of all states. The new secretary-general should begin to bridge the gap between these words and the institution’s deeds by taking the General Assembly’s endorsement of the responsibility to protect as a mandate and a mission statement. Economic and militarily capable states and organizations including the United States must also take steps to bolster UN action, and to be available when the UN is not.
The long-term goal is to avoid the stark options of “Doing Nothing” and “Sending in the Marines.” That requires establishing a pattern of early and effective international response at the first signs of concern. The place to start is with concrete steps to build capacity—diplomatic, economic, legal, and military—in support of the principle of humanitarian protection. Universal adoption of the responsibility to protect has begun to remove the classical excuses for doing nothing in the face of mass atrocities. What is needed now is the capacity and political will to back it up.
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