As the United Nations nears its 50th anniversary in 1994, Hugo Slim looks at its future world role.
IN APRIL 1991 I WAS one of the first people to reach the terrible camps of Kurdish refugees on the Turkey-Iraq border. The Turkish Red Crescent were already there, and so were other voluntary organisations. But where were the United Nations (UN) the nominal leaders of the international community? Had they not heard the news?
In recent years, there has been increasing criticism of the international system for responding to disasters. The UN agencies are meant to take the lead in this system but for a variety of reasons some of their own making and others beyond their immediate control they have often failed to do so.
The people of the world need the United Nations, but they deserve a better organisation than exists at present. Many people now realise that the reform of the UN is vital to the so-called "new world order". Recently, President Clinton called for the UN to "reinvent itself effectively" and in 1994 aspecial commission on global government will report on the progress of the UN.
Reform of the United Nations emergency response is needed for two reasons. First, to improve the UN's operational performance on the ground and secondly, to adapt it to the new "complex emergencies" of the postCold War world, which are characterised by simultaneous civil war, famine, displacement and lack of government.
In improving its operational performance in emergencies, the UN needs to focus on its coordination, its timeliness, its division of responsibilities, its accountability, and the calibre of its staff. The UN's Department of Humanitarian Affairs which was set up to coordinate the UN's response in emergencies, still lacks the teeth to do so, and is in danger of losing credibility.
To adapt to the new world order the UN needs to work with its member states to reach consensus about when the international community has the right to override a nation's sovereignty and intervene in a disaster.
It also needs to ensure that in its interventions, the basic principle of humanitarian impartiality is not lost within the military operations which are increasingly dominating relief programmes.
These last issues are not matters for the UN alone. For the first time in its 74 year history, Save the Children's relief programmes have had to be protected with armed guards in recent years. The same has been true for the international Committee of the Red Cross guardians of the Geneva Convention.
The international community needs to preserve some humanitarian ground rules in the next few years, if we are not to see humanitarian relief become equated with armed force by the beginning of the 21st century.
A new improved UN can be reinvented in one of two ways. Either it can be reformed gradually and "incrementally" by developing the existing system. Or, it can be radically transformed with new charters written up and its mandates overhauled so that some of its agencies are merged.
The UN needs support during this process. It is vital to remember that the UN is only ever the sum of its parts. Those parts are its member states. All too often these states fail to support it or are selective in their support.
The story at the beginning of this piece is an example of when the UN does not work effectively. There are mans' others when it does. Criticism of the international system for disaster response needs to be constructive, aimed at ensuring that the UN functions at its best. These are difficult tasks, but today's emergencies are ne: described as complex for nothing.
Hugo Slim is the senior research officer at Save the Children. The views in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Save the Children.