United Nations

New York seminar focuses on the role of an international force

In Brief: 

Sponsored by the United Nations Office of the Bahá'í International Community, the seminar focused on two issues: peacekeeping and the need for an international auxilliary language.

NEW YORK -- At a special one-day seminar on restructuring the United Nations, representatives from select government missions, NGOs and UN agencies generally agreed that the upgrading of UN peacekeeping operations into a genuine international force will be required if the UN is to become more effective at containing war.

Participants also said that the long-term vision for the organization must be based on efforts to eradicate the underlying sources of conflict -- whether poverty, human rights violations or misunderstanding -- if lasting world peace is to be established.

Bringing together some two dozen individuals from government missions, United Nations agencies, academia, and non-governmental organizations, the 18 October seminar was entitled "Turning Point for All Nations" and was held in connection with the 50th anniversary of the UN.

Sponsored by the United Nations Office of the Bahá'í International Community, the seminar touched generally on the need for reform of the UN but focused on two basic issues: peacekeeping and the need for an international auxiliary language.

In the end, participants agreed that to accomplish such visionary changes in the international order it will require a strong partnership between governments and non-governmental organizations. For only in such a partnership will people at the grassroots be reached. And only with their support can such dramatic changes be made.

"We can't restructure the United Nations without a vision of where we are going," said Ruth Engo, a senior liaison officer for Africa and the Least Developed Countries for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), who chaired the afternoon session.

A New Era for the UN

The tone of the seminar was set in a keynote address by President Amata Kabua of the Marshall Islands, whose talk combined a sense of pragmatism and moral principle as he made a vigorous plea for understanding that the United Nations has entered a new era.

"The immutable law of change and decay necessitates the need for the United Nations to dispassionately examine its performance, revise its aims, and reassess its structures in a genuine search for practical and long lasting solutions," said President Kabua. "There is no choice. The current political landscape is vastly different from that of fifty years ago. There is now more than a threefold increase in the number of nations with membership in the United Nations. The rapidly increasing desire on the part of civil society and corporations to become more fully engaged in the change process itself has added a prominent dimension to the nature of active agencies in the field."

Also delivering an opening statement was UN Under-Secretary General Gillian Sorenson, who oversaw the United Nations' fiftieth anniversary commemorations this year. She said that the UN welcomes ideas for reform, saying that new ideas represent an "opportunity and not a threat" to the organization.

The morning session was chaired by John Biggar, first secretary of the Permanent Mission of Ireland to the UN. Following President Kabua and Ms. Sorenson were three presentations. First, Virginia Strauss, executive director of the Boston Research Center for the 21st Century, gave an overview of current proposals for United Nations restructuring. Her talk focused on the response to the recent book, Our Global Neighborhood, the report of the Commission on Global Governance.

Next, Brian Lepard, an assistant professor of law at the University of Nebraska, presented a paper entitled "The Prospects for a Permanent United Nations Military Force." Reviewing the great successes -- and also the failures -- of UN peacekeeping operations over the last 50 years, Prof. Lepard said that the main trends of increasing world interdependence will inevitably lead to a wider recognition of the need for some sort of UN force that can respond quickly and impartially to global crises. Such measures, he added, will require the widespread acceptance of our sense of interdependence.

"No United Nations force can succeed unless world public opinion is behind it," said Prof. Lepard. "This is the main challenge. What is required is a transformation of attitudes: the understanding that the world is one neighborhood, spiritually as well as physically."

And, finally, Jeffery S. Gruber, a professor of linguistics at the University of Québec, explored how a universal auxiliary language, promoted under UN auspices, could go far to address the underlying sources of conflict, poverty and miscommunication that so challenge the international community today.

"The benefits of a universal auxiliary language amount to a necessity today," said Prof. Gruber, who explained that the concept entails an effort not to supplant the diverse native languages of the peoples of the world but rather to offer a secondary common language which can be taught in schools everywhere.

" All the peoples of the world have the right to partake of and contribute to the emergent world society and its affairs. An International auxilliary language would provide the means for all human beings to exercise their right to communicate in the world community." 

-- Prof. Jeffery S. Gruber

Prof. Gruber pointed out that the "right to communicate" can be considered a basic human right. "In the international context," said Prof. Gruber, "all the peoples of the world have the right to partake of and contribute to the emergent world society and its affairs. Implicit in this is the necessity for interchange at the grassroots level. An international auxiliary language would provide the means for all human beings to exercise their right to communicate in the world community."

Concerns of Women

In the discussion that followed these presentations, some new themes emerged.

First, several women participants indicated that they had some fundamental concerns about an international military force -- and that if one were to be developed, it would have to be used only with careful deliberation and as a last resort.

"In all the conflicts in the world today, it is men who made the decision in the conflicts and women who are the sufferers," said Misrak Elias, senior advisor, women's development program, United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF). "What would make the force effective and useful is the degree to which women are decision-makers."

Ms. Elias and others urged that any restructuring of the United Nations also take into account the need to address underlying issues of conflict.

"When I look at issues of peace and violence," Ms. Elias continued, "it is clear to me that conflict among nations has to be closely related to conflict in the country and conflict in the family." The real solution, she said, has to come at both international and local levels, in the form of education, development and other efforts to address poverty and fundamental inequities.

Other participants stressed the practical importance of having a force that can step in when efforts to prevent conflict fail.

"The reality is that some nations, especially young nations, use military force to solve their problems," said Lt. Col. Birger Hoff, a military planner in the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations. "And when those nations have done that and they don't want to do it anymore, then this organization needs some kind of muscle, to help them live up to their agreements."

Critical to making such a force more effective, he said, is the development of a force which would be sent out much more quickly to respond to crises. "Presently, it takes six to nine months to put together a peacekeeping force in the traditional way," said Lt. Col. Hoff, adding that a standing force of some sort would be in position to respond much more quickly.

Lt. Col. Hoff also pointed out that, increasingly, UN peacekeeping operations have taken on jobs associated with nation-building -- such as holding elections and educating the populace about human rights -- that likewise seek to address underlying sources of conflict.

"If there's a criminal act taking place, Chapter 7 is there for countries to work together against that one country. Diplomacy without threat doesn't work."

-- Willard Haas, UN Information Officer

Willard Haas, an information officer with the UN Department of Public Information, said that the UN Charter reserves the use of force only as a "last resort." Nevertheless, he said, that leaves just two choices: do nothing or use force. "If there's a criminal act taking place," he said, "Chapter 7 [of the Charter] is there for countries to work together against that one country. Diplomacy without threat doesn't work."

Diane Ala'i, a Bahá'í International Community representative to the United Nations in Geneva, suggested that most of the issues surrounding reform of the United Nations concern the fundamental debate over the degree to which national sovereignty must be weighed against international principles.

"There are extremely important cases of human rights violations that are brushed under the carpet because countries say that they are an internal matter," said Ms. Ala'i.

Ethan Taubes, program director for the International League for Human Rights, said that the idea of an international auxiliary language could aid in helping to overcome the sense of nationalism that reinforces the wall of sovereignty. "It creates the building block for an international cosmopolitan culture that transcends parochial interests," Mr. Taubes said.

Rebequa Getahoun, a representative to the UN from the Bahá'í Community of the United States, urged those from NGOs to continue to press forward with idealistic principles and a new vision for humanity.

"Our responsibility to is create a vision that the governments can follow," said Ms. Getahoun, "not to follow the visions that the governments have created. As NGOs, we are supranational. National sovereignty doesn't matter for us. And together we can create the kind of movement that can transform the face of the earth."

Techeste Ahderom, principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community's UN Office, said the event was the first in a series of seminars designed to provide a forum for discussions on the key issues facing humanity at the end of the 20th century.