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Yevgeny M. Primakov, the former prime minister of Russia as well as a former foreign minister and intelligence chief, sits on U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's commission on the future of the United Nations. This excerpt is taken from his forthcoming book "A World Challenged: Fighting Terrorism in the 21st Century," a co-publication by The Brookings Institution and The Nixon Center. This is the second article in the series on the future of the United Nations. The first one, by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was released Dec. 4.

By Yevgeny M. Primakov

MOSCOW -- Can the world resist moving away from U.N. mechanisms and toward unilateral or coalition action by the primary players in world politics?

At the end of the 20th century, this extra-U.N. tendency led to the use of force outside U.N. auspices against Yugoslavia, a sovereign nation.

On March 20, 2003, the United States and Britain acted without a U.N. Security Council resolution, essentially ignoring the council's opinion, and undertook an armed attack on Iraq. Is this our first glimpse of a system that will supplant the U.N.-based world order we know now? Will experience gained from taking individual action to resolve critical international issues be effectively applied in the era after Sept. 11? Or will the principles of so-called humanitarian intervention and an expansive interpretation of the demands of a war on international terrorism win out in the coming century?

The U.N. Charter limits the use of force to protect or restore international peace; it does not condone interference in the internal affairs of a state. Article 2(7) demonstrates the incompatibility of these somewhat contradictory principles. The charter states: "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essential within the domestic jurisdiction of any state ... but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII."

This mechanism provides the primary world powers with rules of conduct that are largely responsible for international stability. These rules worked during the Cold War, but after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the United States was able to occupy alone the position previously occupied by two superpowers. This was made patently obvious by the situation with Iraq during the late 1990s. Supported by Britain, the United States moved outside the auspices of the United Nations to carry out air strikes against Iraq for its violations of the no-fly zone that the United States had unilaterally imposed. Military strikes against Yugoslavia followed. At a high-level expert group symposium on international law (April 22, 2002, at Harvard University), former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser correctly observed, "At that moment, the only resolution to come from the United Nations was one calling for restraint on the part of the United States. However, its goal was not the creation of a better international system, but rather the need for the United Nations to adopt a policy acceptable to the United States."

At first, circumventing the United Nations was accompanied by attempts to extract last-minute tacit U.N. acknowledgement that the actions were legal. This was especially true with Yugoslavia. In 1999, with NATO support and again unsanctioned by the United Nations, the United States commenced bombing Yugoslavia. The United States accused Belgrade of persecuting Kosovo Albanians and demanded the withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from parts of their own territory, from Kosovo. (NATO recognized and continues to recognize the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.)

Having not long before branded the so-called Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) a terrorist organization, the United States and several other NATO members came out in support of the KLA, which publicly declared its intent to break Kosovo away from Yugoslavia and to create a Greater Albania.

Justifying their action as countering massive repression of Albanians in Kosovo, the organizers of the NATO intervention created a situation in which direct pressure from Albanians drove Serbs out of Kosovo in huge numbers. NATO's intervention in Kosovo effectively supported those working to create an extremist Islamic state in the center of Europe. This tumor in Kosovo has already begun to metastasize to other countries, as evidenced by the swift rise of Albanian separatism in Macedonia. Nor did NATO intervention bring stability to Kosovo. Only the illusion of stability is to be seen, not true stability, and it will last only as long as U.N. troops are present. What happens after they go home?

This entire situation is the result of a subjective interpretation of events in Yugoslavia being given precedence over the U.N. principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states. Measures that served the misguided interests of one nation were given precedence over time-tested collective measures based on the U.N. Charter.

Apparently understanding the NATO intervention's precariousness vis-a-vis international law, the Clinton administration tried to cast it as not in opposition to but very nearly in synch with the United Nations. Vice President Al Gore assured me -- at the time I was prime minister -- that the bombing of Yugoslavia did not violate the U.N. Charter and indeed reflected the general trend of Security Council discussion. How unrealistic this and other explanations were was clear from a statement made by U.N. Secretary-General Annan: "The intervention by a regional organization in Kosovo without U.N. mandate ended tragically and poses a challenge to the entire post-war system of international security."

Many shared Annan's assessment. "U.S. domination has led to a true crisis in the United Nations and within the world community. I refer to Kosovo," said Fraser. He called the bombing of Yugoslavia unsanctioned by the U.N. Security Council "an unambiguous act of military aggression and a violation of international law."

As usual, the United Nations had to get involved with Yugoslavia. The NATO intervention was not fully effective, and dissent within NATO had grown. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution sending an international contingent to Kosovo, and all parties acquiesced. At this stage, a solution was found by forgoing independent action by NATO and returning to U.N. practice. But does this mean the model for an about-face now exists or that we can be assured it will work this way under any circumstances?


The idea of humanitarian intervention was used to legitimize U.N. circumvention of the use of force against states later included by the United States in the "axis of evil." Humanitarian intervention allows a state or group of states to use armed force against regimes they feel are leading their countries to conditions of humanitarian disaster. This pertains to wide-scale human rights violations.

The world community is faced with wide-scale ethnic cleansing and mass murder. We face leaders whose policies result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of starving, persecuted refugees, in armed clashes with neighboring states, and in attempts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. It is true that in many such cases, human rights and the interests of peace and security cease to be purely a state's internal affairs. Mass violations of human rights and security demand a reaction from the world community, including the possible use of force. But how, and in what form? Based on international law, or despite it?

The main issue here is whether force is used in accordance with the U.N. Charter, or whether its use circumvents the U.N. Security Council. A majority of states, including Russia, are in favor of preserving the U.N. mechanism and have spoken out clearly on this mater in recent years at every session of the U.N. General Assembly. A minority -- primarily the United States and few NATO members -- believe that humanitarian intervention requires a departure from U.N. procedure. They feel that the U.N. process, unwieldy because of the right to veto, only slows down and occasionally blocks the swift action that is sometimes needed.

There might be a real need for certain procedural modifications that would alter that primary international regulatory mechanism, the United Nations. First, however, any such changes should not disempower the United Nations; it should not be transformed into some kind of consulting bureau. Second, modernization of the United Nations in line with today's reality should not result from action by a single state or group of states, but through the collective efforts of U.N. members.

It is easy to see how so-called humanitarian intervention, used in place of the U.N. process, opens up broad opportunities to justify the use of force based on subjective evaluations and without any of the Security Council's restraint. This could lead to unintended, disastrous results. When President Bush included Tehran in the "axis of evil" and threatened to use force against it, Iran threatened to destroy its oil fields and pipelines in the Persian Gulf. What would be the result for mankind if such an exchange of pleasantries were to be carried out not in words, but in deeds? What if this exchange were the common mode of behavior in international politics?

Many political observers believe that NATO's armed action against Yugoslavia represented a new doctrine allowing the alliance to use force outside its borders even if none of its members has been attacked. This could be extrapolated onto the international situation that has evolved after Sept. 11.

Truly, not once has so-called humanitarian intervention carried out by a single state or group of states prevailed in the fight against international terrorism. The record shows that neither humanitarian intervention nor even the threat of its use yields positive results in this effort. Indeed, it often serves only to provoke further terrorism.

Neither does humanitarian intervention make any sense as a punitive operation against countries that may harbor terrorist organizations. If such were the case, the world community should give a green light to the bombing of London, where IRA extremists have built their nests, or Spain, from within which Basque separatists operate. It could be argued that strikes should not be carried out against countries that fight terrorist organizations within their own borders, as Britain and Spain obviously do. Yet other cases are somewhat murkier. And who determines the degree to which a particular government is engaged in terrorist support if the United Nations is shut out of the decision-making? These are serious issues.

A permanent state of war against terrorism is supported by the new U.S. military doctrine, which focuses on preemptive action against enemies the United States freely makes up out of whole cloth. President Bush has made no secret of the fact that the United States will initiate attacks on countries that it feels pose a threat to its security. This excessively broad understanding of U.S. security jettisons the concepts of both international law and national sovereignty.

Should we accept that the U.S. administration has found a realistic approach to establishing peace and maintaining security in the world? Hardly, if only for the reason that it eschews collective efforts and strengthens the cult of individual, solitary action by the United States.

(c) 2004, Yevgeny M. Primakov/Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 2/9/04)