The U.N. and Humanitarian Assistance: Ambassador Jan Eliasson

By Loehr, Robert C.; Wong, Eric M. | Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview
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The U.N. and Humanitarian Assistance: Ambassador Jan Eliasson

Loehr, Robert C., Wong, Eric M., Journal of International Affairs

Journal: In recent years, the international community has increasingly been called upon to intervene in situations of intrastate conflict, often without the consent of the parties involved. To what extent do you feel that this intervention threatens the traditional concept of sovereignty?

Eliasson: I think we are going through a change in international relations that goes back to two main factors: The first is the end of the Cold War, and the second is the fact that conflicts (perhaps also as a result of the end of the Cold War) are now concentrated in the realm of civil wars and internal conflicts. This change is increasingly recognized within the international community. The process of adapting to this changing international environment has made it possible for the Security Council to make decisions to enter these internal conflicts to a degree that was not the case in the past.

It started with a very important resolution, U.N. Security Council Resolution 688, which came about after the Iraqi attack on Kuwait and the subsequent dramatic events in the north and south of Iraq. The flow of refugees across the borders to Turkey and Iran was in a way seen as a threat to international peace and security, and the resolution was passed to deal with conditions which basically prevailed inside a country. There were some abstentions (an important one from China), but there were no vetoes of this resolution.

Since 1992, the United Nations Security Council has been more involved with internal conflicts than with international conflicts. So there has already been some type of conceptual breakthrough for the international community, enabling the United Nations to deal with civil wars. This is reflected in the fact that there have been no vetoes in the Security Council concerning such situations. This, in turn, reflects the diminishing tensions between the major powers in the Security Council.

It is not clear to what extent this development is welcomed by all the members of the General Assembly. There may be some nations, especially developing countries, who fear its potential consequences. It may infringe upon their sovereignty, and young nations' independence may be put into question. Finally, there is a fear that humanitarian intervention will be used as a political Trojan Horse. These concerns have to be taken seriously, because it is very important that this trend, as well as the changing responsibility for internal conflicts, be accepted not only within the Security Council, but within the international community as a whole.

Journal: Do you feel, then, that the intervention in Iraq was perhaps a watershed event?

Eliasson: Yes, and not only because the U.N. later had to deal with the internal situation in the Kurdish area, where, as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, I led an operation of humanitarian support. There is also the fact that the Iraq-Kuwait war opened up a new, innovative solution for the implementation of Security Council resolutions in this type of conflict - the setting up of a coalition which received the blessing of the United Nations. But this part of the Iraq-Kuwait situation was truly international. It was a case of aggression which was dealt with in a relatively normal way, i.e., in the context of an international conflict. The other part, which engendered Resolution 688 and the humanitarian programs, dealt with the subject that we are talking about here: activity in internal conflicts.

Journal: If we can, for a moment, narrow it down a bit to humanitarian areas, do you feel that there is a moral obligation for the international community to respond to humanitarian crises that cannot be addressed by a host government alone? Specifically, in the case of what have become known as failed states," such as Somalia, how do you think the international community should respond?

Eliasson: Certainly there is a moral obligation, and now also an obligation that is accepted by the member states.

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