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A Force Behind the U.N.



Sir Brian Urquhart

Former UN Under-Secretary-General with special responsibility for peacekeeping operations

TFF associate

August 20, 2003

YRINGHAM, Mass.- Ralph Bunche was born in Detroit 100 years ago today (August 7, 2003). His passionate determination to get results did not extend to seeking credit for them, so his work is better remembered than he is. Of all his many accomplishments - civil rights pioneer, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, chief drafter of two chapters of the United Nations charter, negotiator of the armistices that ended the first Arab-Israeli war - Bunche said he was proudest of developing what came to be known as peacekeeping.

Setting up the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization in Palestine in 1948, Bunche formulated the principles that have governed peacekeeping operations ever since. In the 1956 Suez crisis, working with Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold and Lester Pearson of Canada, he organized the first peacekeeping force, the United Nations Emergency Force in Egypt, whose presence provided a face-saving pretext for the withdrawal from Egypt of the armies of Britain, France and Israel.

Bunche always insisted on the need for a speedy response to critical situations. Under his energetic and imaginative leadership, the blue helmets of the emergency force, then an untried experiment that few people had much confidence in, arrived in the Suez Canal zone just eight days after the decision was made to send it. "We wanted," he told the governments providing the troops, "to demonstrate that the United Nations resolution was not an empty gesture, and to avoid the development of a vacuum in the area." He added later, "We had a resolution, but I think not many people thought that very much could be done quickly about it."

In the 1960 Congo crisis, with its frightening cold war overtones, Bunche and Hammarskjold, with the help of a large United States airlift, got 3,000 peacekeeping troops to the Congo within four days of the Security Council decision to send them, and 10,000 more in the next three weeks.

I wonder how Bunche, who died in 1971, would have reacted to the delays, despite Secretary General Kofi Annan's pleas, in sending peacekeepers to arrest the horrors of northeastern Congo or Liberia as well as in other places in the recent past. It is true that the compelling cold war need for peacekeeping forces to keep regional conflicts out of the orbit of East-West hostility no longer exists. And after so many peacekeeping operations, and one or two disasters, governments are less willing to have their soldiers involved in a distant conflict of no discernible national interest to their own countries.

But in the age of humanitarian intervention, the human catastrophes of failed states and civil wars will continue to come before the Security Council. If the United Nations' members can no longer urgently provide the necessary peacekeeping troops to moderate desperate, if politically insignificant, situations, some alternative must be found - unless of course, its membeers were to conclude that the Security Council has no responsibility in such matters.

Everyone involved, including the United States, has now expressed remorse for the failure to stop the Rwanda genocide nine years ago. How many more human disasters will fester and multiply before an effective means of international intervention is found? From a purely practical point of view, a highly trained rapid reaction force, permanently at the disposal of the Security Council, would be the most efficient way of spearheading international efforts to deal with the Liberias of the future. Even to mention this idea is heresy in some circles in Washington, and it is disliked by some governments, but amid the desperate appeals for help from victims of anarchy and civil war, surely it deserves renewed consideration.

The existence of such a force would, incidentally, relieve the United States and other countries of painful decisions like the one they have recently faced over Liberia. There are plenty of arguments against such a force. There is one overwhelming argument for it. It is desperately needed.

Ralph Bunche was a unassuming man - he never bothered, for instance, to correct a common misapprehension that he was born in 1904. He was also a very practical, and extremely responsible, man. He disliked dilly-dallying with human tragedy and despised failures to respond to those in dire need. He was always prepared to look for new solutions when old ones had failed. I believe Ralph Bunche would have seen a rapid reaction force as an essential and timely expansion in the international community's capacity for helping the millions now afflicted by anarchy and civil war.


© TFF & the author 2003  


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