Beyond Good Offices? the Role of Regional Organizations in Conflict Resolution. (Regional Perspectives)

By Yen Nguyen, Thi Hai | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Beyond Good Offices? the Role of Regional Organizations in Conflict Resolution. (Regional Perspectives)


Yen Nguyen, Thi Hai, Journal of International Affairs


"Both ASEAN and the OAS were active, flexible and effective in the peace processes in Cambodia and Haiti. Although the UN Security Council and major powers made the final settlement for both conflicts, the contributions of the two organizations were remarkable and make the case for a greater role for regional organizations in conflict prevention and resolution."

The proliferation of conflicts in many parts of the developing world and the overload of UN duties have prompted many to advocate a larger role for regional organizations in maintaining world peace and security. After all, regional organizations have a legal stake in conflict resolution and peacekeeping operations. Article 52 of the UN Charter states that local disputes should be settled regionally before referral to the United Nations and that resolution via the Security Council remains an option if regional efforts fail. (1) In addition, Article 53 of the Charter makes clear that the Security Council can utilize regional arrangements and agencies to enforce and maintain peace and security under its authority.

A brief analysis reveals, however, that regional organizations hardly fulfilled this legal role during the Cold War. Almost all conflicts during this period proliferated with the encouragement and contribution of either the United States or the Soviet Union, making each conflict the proxy confrontation of the two superpowers in a third venue. (2) Accordingly, the superpowers seldom promoted a role for regional organizations in conflict resolution. Moreover, as conflicts during the Cold War often took place between a regional organization's members, disputants were reluctant to use the organizations to resolve their conflicts for fear of other members' partiality. Consequently, regional organizations played only a marginal role, their efforts limited to making available their good offices to disputants. It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Nations enjoyed near-monopoly power in conflict settlement through mediation, peacekeeping or forceful military intervention. (3)

With the end of the Cold War, international relations were no longer based on the polarizing confrontation between two superpowers, giving regional organizations an opportunity to take a leading role in conflict resolution. Regional organizations participated in conflict resolution independently and in cooperation with the United Nations as the normative expectations of the international community increased and superpower intervention in regional conflicts decreased. (4) The most notable cases include the contribution of the Organization of American States (OAS) to the settlement of conflicts in Haiti and Nicaragua and between El Salvador and Honduras; the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Burundi, Liberia, Somalia and Sierra Leone; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia; and NATO in the former Yugoslavia. The role of regional organizations in conflict settlement also went beyond simply providing disputants with good offices. ASEAN not only facilitated negotiations, it also acted as a third-party mediator; the OAS intervened in member states to protect human rights and restore democracy, while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) undertook new responsibilities in preventing and settling regional conflicts. (5) Moreover, NATO, the OAU, the OAS and ECOWAS teamed up with the United Nations in joint peacekeeping, while NATO and the Western European Union acted under UN authorization in the former Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1996.

Among the above cases, ASEAN and the OAS were widely assessed as active and effective in resolving the conflicts in Cambodia and Haiti, respectively. Geographic proximity to the conflicts giving them strong incentives to re-establish peace and security in their regions, both ASEAN and the OAS intervened actively to help resolve them. …

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