Security Studies Program Wednesday Seminar

A Quarter Century of UN Peacemaking: Drawing Lessons

Alvaro de Soto
Former UN Under-Secretary-General

October 10, 2007



Q. Isn't the changing role of UN not so much a change in the Secretary General's role as a change in member states' roles?
A. Member states, and particularly the Security Council, select the Secretary General. But high office tends to change temperaments. Once he was installed, Perez de Cuellar became quite assertive, breaking new ground with unprecedented activities such as wide-scale monitoring of human rights and elections.

Q. What type of situation makes an actor more or less able to mediate? Are there different ways actors carry out negotiations (e.g., the “Norwegian way”)?
A. Non-UN mediators are frequently sought out of fear of UN intervention which might legitimize rebel movements. The US Institute of Peace has conducted a series of studies on negotiating behavior of different states ( China , Israel , Palestine ).

Q. American elites are divided on the question of the UN's role. Those in favor of the UN usually hope the Secretary General will carry out the aims of the United States . There is a tension between that goal and the need for the Secretariat's independence.
A. Whatever the Secretary General does is under careful scrutiny, and if he is seen to be unduly responsive to the bidding of the US or any other member State this could discourage potential candidates from resorting to the UNSG as a third party. The impression that he's doing the bidding of the US or any member State could be damning for his future usefulness. This tension is part of the job.

Q. A tradeoff was identified between non-discriminatory application of international law and the ability to cut deals. The solution proposed was “let Norway do it.” What are the broader solutions (e.g., a stronger International Criminal Court)?
A. An envoy of the Secretary General confronted with a deal that violates international law should make no secret of the necessity of walking away from such an agreement. At the same time, envoys should make clear that the UN, as part of the emerging doctrine of post-conflict peace-building as set out in Boutros-Ghali's “agenda for peace,” will work for deals that are durable. In order to achieve that, the Secretariat will lead an effort to ensure that the international community and the UN system of agencies are on board. In order to persuade parties tempted to do inappropriate deals not to do so, the Secretary-General's envoy can draw the attention of parties to a conflict that if the Secretariat walks away, they would be sacrificing that potential resource. It's very much in the interest of a sustainable deal that the Secretary General be involved.

Q. How is the rising role of NATO playing out? Are certain conflicts handed over to NATO?
A. The breakdown of UN peacekeeping efforts in the former Yugoslavia opened the door for the first NATO out-of-area operation. Things had reached a point where enforcement measures were required that the UN could not cope with. NATO usually operates in such cases. But NATO does not carry out a peacemaking role.

Q. On the issue of malfeasance by peacekeeping forces, what has been the response of the Secretary General's office?
A. This is a major problem, given the great demand for peacekeepers. Europe has seen a reduction of military budgets. When you cast a wider net, the quality is uneven. The UN is dependent on national forces placed at the disposal of the UN to observe certain standards and bring to justice perpetrators of violators of those standards. These days peacekeeping forces tend to be small contingents from many countries, whereas in the past the reverse was preferred.

Q. The UN Charter is for the 20 th century. There needs to be a complete change in the ways nations relate to the UN. There is an increased need to yield sovereignty in international field, and national armed forces shouldn't be sent beyond their borders. The UN needs its own military force, which can enforce international law.
A. There was a proposal for a small standing UN force at the disposal of the Security Council (5,000 or so). Such a force, at the disposal of the Security Council, could deal with small crises, preventing them from escalating. However, this idea received no support from member States. There is no constituency for such an autonomous force, so the UN will have to continue to rely on case-by-case decisions and provision of personnel.

Q. Do you have any insight into the debacle with the safe zones in Yugoslavia ?
A. I was representing the Secretary General in the Security Council on the day the Secretary General was requested to provide his opinion on what would be required to establish safe zones. I got into a lot of trouble for providing overnight, in writing, an estimate of what it would require (troop numbers in the low 30,000s and the disarming of the safe zones). Later, Boutros-Ghali put a number of options before the Security Council, the low option of which involved 7,600 troops. The council went for the low option. However, the first paper, when there was an investigation later, the Secretariat was able to say “we told you so.”

Alvaro de Soto held various senior positions at the UN; until May 2007 he was UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

Rapporteur: Nathan Black

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2007