Ban Ki-moon won Washington’s support for the job of Secretary General on the strength of his campaign pledge to “reform” the United Nations.
More than a year ago the United Nations adopted the “responsibility to protect.” The General Assembly’s endorsement of this revolutionary principle removes blind reverence for national sovereignty as an excuse to look the other way when innocents are being wiped out. In elevating this principle, the nations of the world said that they prioritize the right of people to live over the right of states to do as they please. The question now is whether this pledge was humanitarian hypocrisy, or did they have something serious in mind?
The most important “reform” Ban can undertake is to convert these three inspiring words into a program of action. The goal, as Ban himself said, should be to “operationalize” the responsibility to protect by building up the UN’s capacity to respond early and effectively at the first sign of concern.
The place to start is by building a more nimble and capable peacekeeping capacity at the United Nations. Despite steady improvement since the 1990s, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations still lacks the capacity to deploy troops when it counts.
The absence of a rapid response capability is a problem that dates back to the UN’s founding. But the time may be right to address this deficiency head on. Building on President Bush’s proposal in the State of the Union for a voluntary international reserve of civilians, Ban should push for the establishment of an international strategic reserve of troops that could be designated by states to be available for peacekeeping missions authorized by the Security Council. Nations would train troops to international standards. Earmarked troops would exercise with one another. States would be compensated for their efforts, and would receive a premium if they gave formal approval for their forces, which would remain under each state’s national command, to be deployed to a UN mission.
In adopting the responsibility to protect last year, the United Nations accepted the principle that mass atrocities which take place in one state are the concern of all states. The new secretary-general should begin to bridge the gap between these words and the institution’s deeds by taking the General Assembly’s endorsement of the responsibility to protect as a mandate and a mission statement.
The long-term goal is to avoid the stark options of “Doing Nothing” and “Sending in the Marines.” That requires establishing a pattern of international response at the first signs of concern. The place to start is with concrete steps to build capacity — diplomatic, economic, legal, and military — in support of the principle of humanitarian protection. Adoption of the responsibility to protect has begun to remove the classical excuses for doing nothing in the face of mass atrocities. What is needed now is the capacity and political will to back it up.