In May, Cyclone Nargis struck southern Myanmar (also known as Burma), killing over 80,000 people and leaving millions homeless and in dire conditions. For weeks after the storm, Myanmar's military junta blocked and delayed international relief efforts while doing little to aid survivors.

Despite heated condemnation from capitals throughout the world, the international media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), Myanmar's government was exceedingly slow in allowing foreign aid and foreign relief workers into the affected area. Myanmar -- already a humanitarian disaster before the cyclone -- has once again starkly exposed the international community's inability to face down governments that massively mistreat their people. It is time for the international community to reduce the disparity between words and deeds.

In the past few decades, there have been remarkable advances in the fields of human security and human rights. Democratic governments and civil-society organizations have increasingly spoken out against wanton human rights abuses, violence against minorities, and the dangers of unchecked state sovereignty. Terms such as "never again" and appeals for "humanitarian intervention" and a "responsibility to protect" have become commonplace as concerned countries have sought to prevent man-made crises or halt them before they descend into mass violence. Treaties such as the United Nations' Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and an international criminal judicial system have been developed to limit states' power to harm their own citizens and their neighbors.

In the face of certain humanitarian disasters, such as Serbian violence against Albanians in Kosovo during the late 1990s, the world has reacted strongly to end the atrocities. Some international efforts have come too late: in Bosnia in the 1990s, Sierra Leone at the turn of the century, and Liberia in 2003. And there are ongoing humanitarian emergencies today in repressive states such as North Korea, Sudan, and Zimbabwe and broken states such as Somalia. These countries have remained largely immune to international pressure; meanwhile, their citizens continue to suffer. Rising public concern, media attention, and pressure from grass-roots organizations have helped ensure that governments do not simply avert their gaze. All of this attention has also helped produce significant diplomatic activity (as in Darfur) and has generated large sums of money to assist refugees and displaced people fleeing violence and ruin. Unfortunately, it has not been enough to put an end to the worst crises.

In an ideal world, noncoercive efforts would produce better behavior. But states persecuting their own people are rarely responsive to peaceful gestures. General sanctions also have their limitations; they tend to hurt already-suffering populations and have little impact on government policies, as was the case in Iraq during the 1990s and as is happening in Myanmar today. Sanctions that target regime leaders (especially their finances) are more promising, but preventing leaders from entering the United States or doing business there -- two cookie-cutter sanctions Washington often employs -- does not seem to have much of an impact.


The international community desperately needs to develop better mechanisms to respond to these pressing human-security crises. What is needed is a streamlined UN decision-making process, ready UN access to military and other forces, and strong investment in diplomacy by key states and institutions. Pressure from NGOs, humanitarian groups, and their supporters will be necessary in order to achieve this sort of systemic change. International clamor must produce results, not simply more clamor.

Some commentators have called for bypassing the UN system and forming "coalitions of the willing" as the need arises. That strategy worked in Kosovo, but many nations had misgivings over the absence of a prior UN blessing. Regional peacekeeping forces led by Nigeria also attempted unsuccessfully to stabilize Sierra Leone during the late 1990s and Liberia in 2003. But ad hoc coalitions cannot be relied on to act with regularity. And in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, most countries will now insist that any coalition of countries wanting to intervene in another state obtain the UN's approval first, which would run up against the likely opposition of one or more of the five permanent -- and veto-wielding -- members of the UN Security Council.

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- along with some voices in the Democratic Party -- has been trumpeting the idea that a "League of Democracies" could become a vehicle for more robust intervention in failed and abusive states. However, such a group would face the same credibility problems as coalitions of the willing, and the exclusionary nature of the league could prevent important, but nondemocratic, countries from cooperating. Indeed, there is already a league of democracies -- it is called NATO -- and it has shown little interest in resorting to coercive intervention to stop humanitarian crises. (The stabilization of Afghanistan was a task bestowed on the alliance by an angry, violated United States, but another Kosovo-style intervention -- in Abkhazia, for example -- would be highly unlikely.) And now, even the United States is showing little interest in intervening in other failed or failing states, as it struggles to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq.

Moreover, democracies face inherent internal obstacles to conducting humanitarian interventions: publics are hesitant to support military involvement in countries they know little about and where they detect no national interest. Their leaders see little political benefit and high political costs in taking on large, long-term overseas projects fraught with uncertainty and danger. Regional organizations once seemed to offer hope. As regional cooperation has flourished in the last two decades, the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the European Union have created crisis-response teams to provide aid in the wake of natural disasters or to assist UN peacekeepers. Yet their accomplishments have been minimal: ASEAN's pressure has so far failed to open up Myanmar, and the AU has shamefully evaded dealing with Zimbabwe. It is premature to dismiss these regional organizations entirely, but if the world is going to face down its most brutal regimes, the major powers must be part of the solution.


Reinvigorating the UN -- which is still perceived by most countries as the preeminent institution providing international legitimacy -- will be essential. The long-discussed project of Security Council reform and expansion will not guarantee an appropriate international reaction to grave crises. In fact, such measures would likely lead to even greater paralysis. More important, the UN Security Council's five permanent members -- China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States -- will not give up their veto power easily. And even if they did, it would not necessarily assure strong coercive action during humanitarian crises. But the diffusion of power in the world and growing calls for great-power cooperation may encourage the permanent five to informally agree not to use their vetoes to block proposals for coercive intervention in extreme humanitarian crises.

In the event of a crisis, a recommendation from the UN secretary-general to the Security Council to act or a resolution by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly declaring that the situation constitutes a profound humanitarian disaster requiring an urgent response would help encourage UN Security Council cooperation. The permanent five could also make clear in advance of any vote that they would either abstain or support the resolution, thus ensuring its unobstructed passage. Alternatively, the permanent five could agree that unless three of them plan to vote against the measures to be taken, all five would either support the resolution or abstain (which under current practice would not constitute a veto). In the absence of such an agreement among the permanent five, blunting the power of the veto in these critical situations would require amending the UN Charter to make no votes by the permanent five in such special circumstances not amount to vetoes -- an extremely difficult proposition. In either case, securing nine out of 15 Security Council votes would be necessary to pass such a resolution -- not an easy task given that many countries have displayed a penchant for resisting intervention of any sort.

In addition to any Security Council reform or agreed permanent-five conduct, the UN's peacekeeping capabilities need improvement. The UN should never authorize the deployment of a major peacekeeping force, as it did recently in Darfur, without first being certain that the necessary forces and equipment will be available. Past peacekeeping missions that ended in tragedy, such as those in Somalia and Rwanda, serve as poignant reminders of how important adequate planning, personnel, and field knowledge can be.

The participation of troops from the permanent five in UN peacekeeping operations is long overdue. At the moment, the major powers are effectively buying the services of other countries by financing missions without staffing them. The United States can credibly argue that it has taken on significant peacekeeping responsibilities outside the UN system; nonetheless, it is only fair that countries wielding a veto over all major decisions at the UN bear a serious share of the responsibility for intervention and peacekeeping.

The permanent five members have some of the largest armies in the world. Each should be willing to provide 5,000 fully trained troops on an ongoing basis for peacekeeping missions authorized by the Security Council. This would be a massive departure from current practice: at the moment, France has contributed 1,974 troops; China, 1,955; the United Kingdom, 347; Russia, 293; and the United States, 258. Committing sizable troop contingents to UN missions -- as Article 43 of the UN Charter called on UN member states to do -- could create anxieties about command and control, not to mention domestic political problems for the U.S. government especially. However, these challenges will be far easier to overcome than the more basic impediment to UN action of a Security Council veto. Although the inclusion of permanent-five forces could lead some troubled nations, such as Sudan, to try to block certain UN peacekeeping efforts, the benefits would outweigh the risks. A standing commitment of 25,000 well-trained, well-equipped troops would add significantly to the credibility and professionalism of the UN's peacekeeping operations.


Back in 1945, the drafters of the UN Charter envisaged an organization with ready access to police and military personnel -- a UN army of sorts. That idea went nowhere for almost five decades because of the gridlock between Moscow and Washington in the Security Council during the Cold War. The reluctance then and now of countries such as the United States to participate in UN peacekeeping activities or give the UN greater flexibility in using force has also stopped it from moving forward. Since the end of the Cold War, academics, NGOs, and prominent UN personalities, such as Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, and Brian Urquhart, a former UN undersecretary-general, have advocated improving the UN's access to military forces. But attempts to strengthen the UN's capacity to act have continued to fail.

In an era of globalization and individual rights, when the capacity of states to react is being eroded from above and below, the idea of creating an autonomous UN force -- first floated in 1945 -- merits serious reconsideration. At a minimum, the international community needs a limited force -- not an army -- that is capable of responding quickly to humanitarian disasters and preventing conflicts from spiraling out of control. Realistically, such a force would initially number 5,000 and come from countries willing to volunteer their troops for humanitarian-crisis missions under a UN commander. Traditional peacekeeping units provided by member states might then replace this more specialized force after a crisis subsides. The 2000 Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, chaired by Algeria's Lakhdar Brahimi, formally proposed a UN rapid-deployment force, but the Clinton administration failed to pursue the idea, in large part due to the United States' botched 1993 intervention in Somalia. Whatever the United States' skepticism about the UN, developing the organization's capacity to deal with international crises would help free Washington from its self-appointed task of unilaterally invading and rebuilding countries.

Establishing a standing UN force ready to respond to acute crises will be a difficult political undertaking for the UN, even if skeptical permanent members are willing to go along. At its inception, the force could be proscribed from engaging in unwelcome interventions and from using force, beyond force protection. It could begin as a small rapid-deployment force with special engineering, logistical, medical, and police skills, ready to respond quickly to humanitarian disasters, such as the May cyclone in Myanmar or the June earthquake in China. This sort of force might initially be more politically palatable to member states and provide experiences and successes that could encourage its eventual expansion for other purposes related to relieving human suffering. The United States, Russia, and the Scandinavian countries have already trained some soldiers for rapid deployment in humanitarian crises. These troops could serve as the foundation on which to build such a force.

NGOs that focus their efforts on humanitarian relief may fear that such a force would replace them. But such fears are unfounded. A well-designed UN response force would act as a complement to relief agencies on the ground, collaborating and coordinating with them. The force would be equipped like any small military force -- with trucks, helicopters, and heavy-lift and long-distance transport capabilities, assets that NGOs may not have available to them and that would greatly enhance their ability to aid civilians.

Finally, there is a need for greater investment in diplomacy. High-level, robust diplomatic intervention has worked in the past to defuse dangerous situations and stop them from unraveling further. For example, former UN Secretary-General Annan's effort to halt the postelection violence in Kenya earlier this year was successful, as was the aggressive U.S.-led mediation that finally secured the historic but tenuous Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and the South of Sudan in 2005.

Diplomacy should not be the sole domain of world superpowers or high-level statesmen. The UN and regional organizations must enlist experienced and qualified people for such purposes, keep them active, and ensure that they are supported by protocols and bureaucracies rather than impeded by them.

The United States and other powerful countries also need to deploy full-time special envoys with adequate support staff in the most serious crisis areas. These envoys should have the ear of their superiors and sufficient stature to influence world leaders. At the moment, the United States has only a part-time envoy for Darfur and no one for Somalia, and Washington failed to assign a top-level official to manage the Myanmar relief response or coordinate with other countries and the UN. Diplomacy must be more than a device used by governments to cynically show their citizens that they are acting on an issue that they do not actually want to confront.


Regrettably, even strong diplomacy backed by severely limited use of the veto, a reinvigorated UN peacekeeping effort, and a new UN crisis-response force would not guarantee that the UN would act against the world's most abusive regimes. These measures would not necessarily resolve the world's many humanitarian disasters, nor do they represent the final word on these matters. But they would offer a greater likelihood that strong international action would be taken in the most challenging situations -- whether the UN is invited or not. Hopefully, proposing them will spur a long-overdue and much-needed discussion.

Reshaping the way the world responds to humanitarian disasters will not be easy. Western countries will have to convince China and Russia -- which remain wedded to traditional notions of sovereignty -- to limit their use of the veto. This will require appealing to Beijing's and Moscow's desire to be seen as responsible partners and emerging global leaders. China is showing increasing sensitivity to such appeals, as is clear from its evolving stance toward Sudan. On the other hand, the Western members of the permanent five may well face domestic legislatures skeptical of limiting their countries' veto power or equipping the UN with a standing crisis-response force. Fortunately, there is a growing recognition in many countries that stopping mass atrocities requires a global response involving the big powers and that enhancing the UN's peacekeeping capabilities would give an international response greater legitimacy and better prospects of success. There is also mounting recognition in the United States and elsewhere that early and robust multilateral responses reduce the necessity of later great-power commitments in deepening crises. Taking action in the Security Council to deal with such crises (as Washington should have done during the Rwandan genocide in 1994) is in the United States' national interest and in keeping with its national values.

Governments are also becoming more sensitive to domestic political pressure for intervention. As the Internet and modern media bring disasters into citizens' living rooms, worldwide interest in humanitarian crises is increasing, and concerned citizens and activists are seeking more effective action from their governments. The world's civil-society organizations -- including those dedicated to human rights, humanitarian relief, and intervention -- and their supporters should not reduce their advocacy efforts. But at least some of their energy should be directed toward actively encouraging institutional change at the UN. Global civil society's efforts to influence governments and public opinion could help provide the impetus for reform and ultimately improve the UN's capacity to address these crises.

The international community has waited too long to discuss concrete institutional changes that, however difficult, offer greater possibilities for managing today's Somalias and Darfurs. The international system in its current form is simply not up to the task.

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  • Morton Abramowitz is a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and former U.S. Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey. Thomas Pickering is Vice Chair of Hills & Company and has served as U.S. Ambassador to six countries and the United Nations.
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