Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

2nd January 2000

A new millennium and old problems for the UN

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NEW YORK — With the birth of a new year — and by some reckoning the advent of a new millennium— the international community is bracing itself to face fresh political, economic and military challenges.

But according to US President Bill Clinton, the 21st century will also bring cures for AIDS and cancer, two of the world’s devastating diseases which continue to take a heavy human toll.

At the same time, the human life span will continue to lengthen, with some living beyond the age of 100, mostly in industrialised societies.

The bad news, however, is that technology would be so advanced that chemical and biological weapons of the future — described as insidious and deadly— will be tiny enough to be carried in one’s hand.

“The organised forces of destruction will take maximum advantage of new technologies, and new scientific developments, just like democratic societies do,’’ Mr. Clinton warns.

In the US, the dawn of the new year was celebrated amid fears of terrorist threats both in Seattle and New York, which kept most potential revelers at home.

The spectre of the faceless, nameless terrorist has also been haunting the corridors of the UN: an institution which last week was also battling the threat of the millennium bug.

As a precautionary measure, the UN did something unprecedented in its 54 year history: the Secretariat in New York was shut down for three days with no one being permitted to enter the building. The doors open only on Tuesday January 4.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan, however, is hoping that World War III will not break out when the UN appears all but paralyzed.

But some cynics would argue that several of the world’s ongoing wars — and peace negotiations — have been or are being conducted outside the political reach of the UN, reducing the world body to the role of a bystander.

As member states negotiate the nuances and limits of state sovereignty and human rights, the UN will be called upon to once again prove itself in the new year.

‘’Unless it is able to assert itself collectively where the cause is just and the means available, its credibility in the eyes of the world may suffer,’’ warns Mr. Annan.

“If states bent on criminal behaviour know that frontiers are not an absolute defense; if they know the Security Council will take action to halt crimes against humanity; then they will not embark on such a course of action in expectation of sovereign impunity,’’ he adds.

The question of state sovereignty— and the right of the UN to intervene in the domestic affairs of a member state — will be one of the key political issues in the year 2000 and beyond.

But the UN will continue to lose its credibility if its overall political agenda is dictated by big powers or if its actions smack of double standards.

Last week India sent a strong message to the UN urging it not to play the role of a mediator in a hijacking drama which began in Kathmandu and ended in Kandahar.

A move by the Russians to bring the issue before the Security Council was also thwarted by the Indians who feared that the Kashmiri issue would be internationalized if UN gets involved in the hostage crisis.

The Russians, who were trying to selfishly make an indirect link between the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane and the growing “Islamic militancy” in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, were told to drop the idea and back away.

A request by the Taleban rulers in Afghanistan for UN negotiation to end the crisis was turned down by Mr. Annan on the ground that the UN has no experience in this particular field.

But as the Washington Post pointed out last week “the UN has more experience negotiating hostage releases than most nations, and it maintains a team of trained negotiators ready to act at a moment’s notice.”

The UN has successfully or unsuccessfully negotiated hostage releases in several countries, including Iran, Lebanon, Georgia, Sierra Leone and Bosnia.

But this time around, its non-role was dictated by India, which is clearly a powerful nation by any standards.

One billion people. A 1.3 million strong military. A regional superpower. And a potential permanent member of the Security Council.

How could the UN challenge those credentials?

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