By Olivia Ward
International Rapid Reaction Force Could be
Deployed Within 48 Hours of a UN Green Light
June 15, 2006
When emergencies strike, Canadians dial 911. But in countries racked by crisis, such a call for help â€” by civilians or government officials â€” is out of the question. So conflicts escalate, wounded and traumatized people go untreated and the survivors wait agonizing weeks or months for aid and shelter, as happened in strife-torn Darfur. This week, a group of academics, former officials and security experts are tabling a proposal they hope will change that by creating an international rapid reaction force that could be deployed within 48 hours of a green light from the United Nations.
Composed of up to 15,000 military, police and civilian staff, including medics and conflict transformation experts, it would be recruited from professionals hired by the UN from many countries, and based at designated UN sites. Its actions would be authorized by the UN Security Council.
"It's not a new idea, but it has now come into its own," says Peter Langille of University of Western Ontario, an expert in conflict resolution, and one of the major contributors to the book entitled, A United Nations Emergency Peace Service: To Prevent Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity, which will be presented tomorrow at the UN. "With countries moving away from UN peacekeeping, and troops overstretched in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, (the rapid reaction force) has new appeal."
The idea of a UN emergency force first surfaced after World War II, when hopes for an activist world body were at their highest. But it wasn't until 1994, in the aftermath of the Rwanda genocide, that it was considered seriously. At that time, the United States worried that it would become an out-of-control "UN army," and developing countries felt threatened by what they saw as an interventionist force directed by the West. A combination of lack of enthusiasm from the rich and opposition from poor countries resulted in the shelving of the project. Wealthy countries were also reluctant to commit their resources to an emergency force, and funding of peacekeeping operations was already lagging.
But, says University of Notre Dame political scientist Robert Johansen, the book's chief writer, reservations could now be overcome: the emergency peace service would be a professional force that would not sap national military resources, or leave countries in doubt about how long their troops might be involved in new conflicts. And, he says, a UN force could help to head off horrendous massacres such as the Rwanda genocide and the current crisis in Darfur. It would also counter the widespread belief that "too little too late has become the rule, not the exception" for international peacekeeping. "The international community could prevent many of these crimes if it would act quickly and send a professional security force to enforce the law."
With an independent force at their disposal, and no obligation to send in their own troops, the Security Council's often squabbling members would have less reason to drag out debates about when to intervene in crises. "We can demonstrate that it's a more cost effective and sound investment than the alternative (of war)," says Langille. "That means not only dealing with genocide, but preventing armed conflict and protecting civilians, ensuring the prompt start of peace operations and addressing human needs."
The new emergency force could cost $2 billion to establish, much less than the costly wars that have flared across Africa and Asia in recent years. It would complement the UN's recently endorsed "responsibility to protect," a Canadian-backed doctrine that makes the world body's members responsible for intervening when a conflict threatens the lives of civilians.
The proposed force would have UN-designated bases, with mobile field headquarters staffed by personnel with a wide range of professional training. "A UN agency would for the first time in history offer a rapid, comprehensive, internationally legitimate response to crisis, enabling it to save hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars through early and often preventive action," the book says. The new force could be built on the framework of existing UN peacekeeping initiatives, such as a "Standby High Readiness Brigade" for peace operations, it adds.
Peacekeeping professionals are in favour of the rapid reaction proposal in principle. But, they say, there are hurdles to surmount before such a force could be viable. "The concept is sound but it would depend on who was willing to join up and ante up," says Canadian Col. Pat Strogan, vice-president of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. "If there weren't reluctance on the part of countries to contribute in the past it might have taken root by now." Speeding up intervention is a "significant step forward," said Strogan, who was commended for courage under fire in Bosnia.
Sunil Ram, a peacekeeping expert and professor at the American Military University, said serious questions remain for the proposed UN emergency force. "Security and logistics are two of the most important," he says. "It's good to fly people off to wherever they are needed, but it takes a lot of planning. First you have to get hold of the equipment. And if you ship in heavy equipment it could take 30 days if you're lucky. You could send in troops with rifles, but would they be able to create the kind of secure environment that's needed to protect people in conflict zones?"
In spite of difficulties, a UN emergency force would give people in crisis new hope and help to re-establish the UN's credibility, says Langille. "There are too many looming challenges in the world for us to continue as we have. If we don't get around to better ways of co-operating we as a species will be challenged."
More Information on a UN Standing Force
More Information on Peacekeeping Reform
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