Following the end of the Cold War, two decades ago, the whole international system has been tested and found wanting. There have been more humanitarian emergencies, massively more UN peacekeeping operations and more conflict. There is a growing realisation that fragile states threaten their people, neighbourhoods and the future safety and security of the world. The aim of those who created the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative was to try to improve the performance of one part of the system. They pressed donors to reaffirm their support for the principles of humanity, impartiality and neutrality. The Humanitarian Response Index (HRI) seeks to hold donors to account in implementing the principles they have signed up to. This builds on the experience of other such indexes like Transparency International’s “Corruption Perception Index” and the World Bank’s “Investment Climate Assessment”. Such indexes use surveys to help make accountable those who claim to support values such as anti-corruption, humanity and The international development system is performing inadequately in its efforts to help countries emerging from conflict to offer a better future to their people. impartiality or the creation of conditions that encourage poverty reduction, but do not always in practice institute the necessary reforms.
Initiatives to encourage implementation of the fine declarations made at international meetings, are to be wholly applauded, but they raise questions about other parts of the international humanitarian system which remain dysfunctional and inefficient. Humanitarian law is being widely ignored by countries that claim to be upholders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of the rule of law. The moral authority of the UN is being undermined, both by the refusal to respect international humanitarian law in the Middle East and by a lack of serious commitment to effective peacekeeping. In addition, the international development system is performing inadequately in its efforts to help countries emerging from conflict to offer a better future to their people. The consequence is that we face great dangers from the anger at continuing oppression and injustice in the Middle East; and from the strains that climate change, peak oil and the exhaustion of other environmental resources will place on human civilisation. At a time when we need unprecedented international co-operation in order to deal with the environmental threats we face, the capacity of the international system is being increasingly undermined.
The foundations of the international system
The present structure of our international institutions and international law was largely laid down at the end of the Second World War. Having experienced the horror and slaughter of the two world wars – which were in reality one long, interrupted war – the generation that survived was determined to create a new framework of international law and cooperation. And thus, building on the best of previous thinking, they created the United Nations and entrenched in the Charter, the illegality of the acquisition of territory by force. They also drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which remains an inspiration in both its conception and values. They negotiated the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, building on the Hague Conventions and previous agreements. Almost all countries have agreed to be bound by them. All are therefore committed to fundamental humanitarian principles and rules to restrain the destruction of war and to protect prisoners, civilians and non-combatants. The Conventions also recognised the special position of the International Committee of the Red Cross in its dedicated efforts to enforce these principles worldwide. The 1951 Refugee Convention defined the rights of refugees and the obligation of states. And the World Bank and IMF were established to help drive the reconstruction of Europe and to create a structure of economic co-operation that would ensure that the world would never again allow itself to descend into an economic depression like that of the 1930s.
These principles and conventions survived and were enhanced over the following decades. But during the Cold War the collective security system of the UN remained largely crippled because of the divisions between the five permanent members of the Security Council. Few of the 70 international wars that occurred before the 1990s led to a response under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Instead the world survived, and made continuing progress in ending colonialism, within the strains and constraints of the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction and Balance of Power politics.
The post-Cold War ’new world order’
The 1990s brought a period of enormous change. The collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, and held the promise of a new world order. The end of apartheid promised peace and development to Africa. The end of the Cold War, led to hopes of Humanitarian law is being widely ignored by countries that claim to be upholders of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the principles of the rule of law. The moral authority of the UN is being undermined, both by the refusal to respect international humanitarian law in the Middle East and by a lack of serious commitment to effective peacekeeping. a reduction of defence spending and an era of international co-operation. But in practice, the 1990s were disorderly and bloody. There was terrible conflict and suffering in the Balkans, Africa and Afghanistan, as the old powers withdrew and left these regions to fend for themselves. War lords flourished and areas of conflict were flooded with small arms. This led to a growth of a new kind of conflict, within, rather than between countries, and often based on ethnic divisions. This left large numbers of civilians, particularly women and children, as its victims and international humanitarian law badly undermined.
Thus we saw a terrible humanitarian crisis in Somalia in 1992, which led to a failed UN peacekeeping mission. The Security Council then authorised the US led mission, Restore Hope to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid. This objective was largely achieved, but the subsequent effort to restore order led to significant loss of American lives. The US withdrew in 1994 and the whole UN mission was withdrawn in 1995. 13 years later, Somalia remains a failed state, facing conflict, humanitarian crisis and displacement of millions of its people. This experience was paralleled by the establishment of a weak UN peacekeeping operation in the Balkans and a failure to halt ethnic cleansing. This led on to the deep shame of the supposedly UN protected city of Srebrenica witnessing the deliberate mass slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995. Similar conflicts broke out in other parts of the former Soviet Union such as Chechnya, and NagornoKarabakh. Little was done to uphold international principles beyond some effort to provide humanitarian relief.
In 1994, we experienced the shame and horror of a UN peace enforcement mission being instructed to stand aside and do nothing to prevent the genocidal slaughter of a million Rwandans. Those responsible for the genocide then withdrew into neighbouring Zaire, and the international humanitarian system rushed to provide relief through the hands of the leaders of the genocide. The continuing threat to Rwanda led to war that ended Mobuto’s regime and sucked in 5 neighbouring countries. Ten years later, the Democratic Republic of Congo hosts the largest peace keeping operation in the world. It is making slow and painful progress in restoring security and competent government in one of the poorest, yet richly mineral endowed, countries on earth.
The beginning of the 21st century: a mixed picture
It is important that we face up to, and try to learn the lessons of the terrible failures of the international system in this period in order to understand the scale of the challenges that we face. We must build on the efforts that were later made to improve its effectiveness. By the time that I became an actor in the international system in 1997, there was a growing effort to make improvements. There were successful, if frail, peace processes in Sierra Leone, Angola and Sudan. The war in Kosovo stretched old ideas of international law, but won broad approval and brought ethnic cleansing in the Balkans to an end. There was also progress in the DRC and Burundi as Africa felt the effects of a democratic South Africa using its influence to drive these peace processes forward. The terrible border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 ended with a small UN peacekeeping operation, although a final peace deal has not been reached and the UN mission was withdrawn in 2008.
There was also progress in improving the effectiveness of the international development system. At Kyoto in 1997 a start was made, with agreement reached on a framework for action on climate change. After a world wide Civil Society campaign, the Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) was enhanced in 1999. This offered debt relief up to 97 per cent, conditional upon the adoption of policies and spending priorities which would reduce poverty. These reforms were linked to a 3 refocusing of World Bank and IMF programmes on the systematic reduction of poverty. Then in 2000, at a special UN meeting called to mark the new millennium, world leaders agreed that the reduction of poverty, and more specifically, meeting the Millennium Development Goals was their central priority. After this, there was further progress. In Monterrey in 2002, at a UN meeting on financing development, the OECD countries promised more aid (which had slumped since the end of the Cold War); and developing countries committed to reforms based on effective state institutions and free markets. (This largely unheralded agreement marked an end to the The failure of the US, UK and EU to hold Israel to account or to respect the 2004 International Court of Justice opinion on the Israeli Wall has also undermined respect for the 1949 Geneva Conventions. ideological divide over the role of state and markets which had been at the centre of the differences of the cold war era). At Johannesburg in 2002, the UN convened a meeting to check on progress ten years after the Rio meeting on sustainable development. It reaffirmed that international co-operation to reduce poverty was essential to a framework of agreement to share the natural resources of the planet more sustainably. And after the spectacular failure of the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle in 1999, which was overwhelmed by protestors opposed to the role of free trade in helping to drive globalisation, the WTO met at Doha in November 2001 and agreed that the trade round should focus on making the international trade system fairer for developing countries.
These reforms led to progress on the ground, with Africa achieving higher levels of economic growth than it had for decades. There have also been significant improvements in primary education, enrolment and immunisation. China’s unprecedented achievements in promoting sustained economic growth have lifted millions of people out of poverty and a similar advance is taking place in India. The UN panel chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi produced its report on improving the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations in 2000. And in April 2003 the UN, EU, Russia and the US agreed on a road map which was supposed to lead to the establishment of a Palestinian State by the end of 2005.
However, this period of effort to improve the effectiveness of the international system stalled under the strain of the declaration of the “war on terror” and the US/UK invasion of Iraq in breach of the UN Charter. The authority of the UN was further undermined by the continuing gross breaches of Humanitarian Law by Israel in the Palestinian occupied territories. The failure of the US, UK and EU to hold Israel to account or to respect the 2004 International Court of Justice opinion on the Israeli Wall has also undermined respect for the 1949 Geneva Conventions. The experience of torture in Abu Ghraib and illegal detentions in Guantanamo Bay further undermine humanitarian principles.
Learning the lessons
Many commentators surveying these developments are deeply gloomy about our future prospects. However, as I write, we look forward to a change of administration in the US and note the demise of the political leaders most closely associated with President Bush’s “War on Terror”. This is an importantThe greatest military power in the world, which is responsible for more than half of global military expenditure, is unable to defeat the asymmetrical resistance in Iraq. And Israel, the great military and nuclear armed power of the Middle East, was unable to defeat resistance from Hezbollah in the course of the Israeli/Lebanese conflict of 2006. time to try to learn the lessons of recent experience. The prospect of a change of international leadership provides an opportunity to look afresh at our capacity “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”  and to mobilise to save civilisation from the effects of global warming, peak oil and other environmental strains .
When we look back at the enormous advance the world made at the end of the Second World War, it is obvious that such a complex and comprehensive settlement could not have been launched by the political leaders of the day without a great deal of preparatory thinking. We are now living at a time when we need a similar mobilisation of ideas to begin to build a consensus for the development of a new international system.
Whatever view one takes of neo-conservative thinking, it is clear that their ideas about America’s unipolar moment and the opportunity to spread democracy across the world by military action has failed. The greatest military power in the world, which is responsible for more than half of global military expenditure, is unable to defeat the asymmetrical resistance in Iraq. And Israel, the great military and nuclear armed power of the Middle East, was unable to defeat resistance from Hezbollah in the course of the Israeli/Lebanese conflict of 2006. In addition, the combined might of NATO is finding great difficulty in defeating the resistance it faces in Afghanistan.
It is also important to note that the UN meetings in Monterrey, Johannesburg and Doha took place after the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. And there was almost universal agreement that the attack on Afghanistan was justified because the Taliban would not agree to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial. The post-Taliban political settlement in Afghanistan Those who argue that 9/11 changed everything are quite wrong. International Humanitarian Law regulates hostilities during all armed conflict. Armed conflict involves the use of armed force by one state against another, or hostilities between government armed forces and organised armed groups, or between such groups within a state. was put in place after local consultation led by the UN. Progress and consensus started to break down in Afghanistan as the US insisted on their right to bomb and hunt for insurgents, many of whom were sent to Guantanamo Bay; and when shortcuts in state building were taken with war lords being included in President Karzai’s cabinet. It is essential that we recall the unanimous denunciation of the attack on the Twin Towers, and the readiness of all members of the Security Council and General Assembly to work together to arrest and bring to justice those guilty of these grave breaches of Humanitarian Law which in all circumstances outlaws the targeting of civilians.
Those who argue that 9/11 changed everything are quite wrong. International Humanitarian Law regulates hostilities during all armed conflict. Armed conflict involves the use of armed force by one state against another, or hostilities between government armed forces and organised armed groups, or between such groups within a state. In other situations such as the attack on the railway in Madrid or underground in London, there is no armed conflict. National criminal law and Human Rights law apply in such circumstances. Thus the global war on terror is a complete misnomer. But the hostilities that started in Afghanistan in October 1991 and Iraq in March 2003 are armed conflicts. In “failed states” where there is a partial or total breakdown of state structures and fighting between war lords with weak chains of command, humanitarian law still governs. Article 3, common to the Geneva Conventions requires all armed groups to respect individuals who have laid down their arms and those, such as civilians who do not take part in the hostilities, whatever the terms used to describe the conflict . It is surely in everyone’s interest to try to uphold not undermine international Humanitarian Law in these circumstances.
It is also important to recall that the invasion of Iraq was not in any way justified by the attack on the Twin Towers, and was a breach of the UN Charter. The conclusion remains, that there were alternative ways of responding to the attack on the Twin Towers and the threats of Al Qaeda in accordance with International Humanitarian Law. They would have been more effective and would have retained almost universal support.
The challenge of failed states
There is a growing understanding that failed states pose a major risk to the future safety and security of the world. There is a new literature on the urgent need for more competent state building. Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart have written eloquently of the important lessons from their efforts to try to help rebuild Afghanistan . And a chastened Francis Fukuyama now argues that some of the thorniest issues of our time such as poverty, HIV/AIDS drugs and terrorism result from weak states .
Increasingly military thinkers see environmental strains, resulting from climate change, water shortages, disruption of agriculture, shortage of oil and displacement of people creating a growing security threat in the future .
Lester Brown in his compelling book most recently updated as Plan B 3.O Mobilizing to Save Civilization sees failed states and high levels of poverty as a major threat to the prospects of the survival of human civilisation. He points out that the poorest countries are trapped in the demographic transition. Life has improved enough to reduce infant mortality and increase life expectancy, but not enough to reduce the birth rate. We therefore face the prospect of another 3 billion people being born in the poorest countries by 2040. At the same time, they also face the strains of water shortages, rapid urbanisation, disruption of agricultural productivity, conflict and disorder. As he points out, in the past, governments have been concerned by the concentration of too much power in one state as in Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union. But today it is failing states that provide the greatest threat to global order and stability.
The Fund for Peace and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace produce an annual analysis of failed and failing states, using 12 social, economic, political and military indicators. A score of 120 is the maximum, meaning the state is failing on every measure. In their first listing based on 2004 data and published in 2005, 7 countries had scores of 100 or more. In 2002, it was 9 countries, and in 2006 it was 23. Their top 20 failing states of 2006 are listed in the table below.
Casting one’s eye across this list would leave most people satisfied that such missions are justified and the cost completely affordable. My concern is that they are not more effective. And when we inspect the ranking of contributions to UN operations, we find that Pakistan contributes 10,622, Bangladesh 9,455, India 9,379, Nigeria 5,474, Nepal 3, 642, Jordan 6 Ghana 3,436 and Rwanda 2,987. Thus more than half the troops are contributed by lower income countries and the five permanent members fewer than 5,000 . The result is that the quality of logistics available to peacekeepers and the political focus on the success of the operation is grossly inadequate.
Towards a sustainable future
In the face of these challenges some turn away in despair and talk of the inevitable demise of homo sapiens following his cousin neanderthal man into extinction. This seems to me to be a distinct possibility unless we mobilise to create a new global order. But it is by no means inevitable. Our failure to act to create a more effective global system could lead to a very ugly future, as millions are displaced as a result of climate change, more states collapse into weakness and disorder and wars are fought over water and oil. It is important that we face up to the reality of this dreadful prospect so that we determine to redouble our efforts to avoid such a future. Lester Brown argues that solutions are readily available . He makes the case for systemic change by pointing to the inevitable consequences of our model of development. If growth in China continues at 8 per cent a year, by 2031 China’s income per head for its 1.45 billion people will be equal to that of the US today.
China’s grain consumption will then be two thirds of the current grain consumption of the entire world. If it consumes oil at the same rate as the US today, the Chinese will be consuming 99 billion barrels a day – and the whole world is currently producing 84 billion barrels a day, and will probably not produce much more. If it consumes paper at the same rate that we do, it will consume twice as much paper as the world is now producing. There go the world’s forests. If the Chinese then have three cars for every four people – as the US does today – they would have a fleet of 1.1 billion cars compared to the current world fleet of 800 million. They would have to pave over an area equivalent to the area they have planted with rice today, just to drive and park them.
Mr Brown, who has been tracking and documenting the world’s major environmental trends for 30 years concluded:
The point of these conclusions is simply to demonstrate that the western economic model is not going to work for China. All they’re doing is what we’ve already done, so you can’t criticise them for that. But what you can say is it’s not going to work. And if it does not work for China, by 2031 it won’t work for India, which by then will have an even larger population, or for the other three billion people in the developing countries. And in some way it will not work for the industrialised countries either, because in the incredibly integrated world economy, we all depend on the same oil and the same grain. he bottom line of this analysis is that we’re going to have to develop a new economic model. Instead of fossil-fuel based, automobile centred, throwaway economy, we will have to have a renewable-energy based, diversified transport system, and comprehensive reuse and recycle economies. If we want civilisation to survive, we will have to do that. Otherwise civilisation will collapse.
But Lester Brown is clear that alternative technologies are available. It would be perfectly possible for us to develop alternative sources of energy and to live in a less consumerist and more sustainable way. He is also clear that we must address the problem of poverty for the bottom billion and deal more effectively with the problem of failed states.
I have no doubt that we could improve our capacity to help weak states rebuild their institutions, grow their economies, get access to new sources of energy and build systems to recycle water and develop a more productive agriculture. But this would require major change in the way the international system operates. Many people working in development know what In the face of these challenges some turn away in despair and talk of the inevitable demise of homo sapiens following his cousin neanderthal man into extinction. This seems to me to be a distinct possibility unless we mobilise to create a new global order. needs to be done. It requires a long term commitment to comprehensive building of state capacity and institutions. Rwanda’s recovery from the utter destruction of genocide shows that significant progress is possible. But this challenge is not given sufficient priority and there are such mixed motives in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan, that the system remains weak and wobbly. Countries recovering from conflict are provided with weak peacekeeping operations and flawed development strategies. Most of them remain weak states and all risk a return to conflict. It would not be difficult to build a more effective system, it is a matter of political will and clarity of intent, that is currently missing in the international system.
My conclusion is that our current international system is not fit for purpose and it would not be difficult to improve its performance significantly. There is plenty of expertise available amongst those working in development that could put in place a programme of institutional reform and improvement in policy that could build on the framework laid down in 1945. We have the capacity to bring humanitarian relief impartially and effectively to all who are in need. We have the capacity to improve the effectiveness of UN peacekeeping operations, if the OECD countries are willing to take up their share of the burden and give priority to successful peacemaking. We have the capacity to support countries recovering from conflict and to help weak states build effective state institutions so that they bring peace and development to their people. But this requires impartiality, a real commitment to the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, long term thinking and big changes in the international development system.
I have no doubt that a peaceful two state solution is possible between Israel and Palestine in accordance with international law. But neither Israel , the US the UK nor the EU believe sufficiently strongly in international law to achieve this peace. The prospects of such a peace are now evaporating, leading to a future where the Palestinian people will be confined to a series of impoverished Bantustans. This will inevitably lead to a second mighty anti-apartheid battle convulsing the world for decades to come.9 I also believe that it would be possible to make an organised and responsible withdrawal from Iraq and to encourage the spread of democracy and development across the Middle East following the resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
The answer to the threat of nuclear proliferation would be to revert to the commitment to a nuclear free Middle East including Israel.
If all this was achieved, we could begin to create a world order capable of the co-operation needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to prevent a global catastrophe. We could create a more sustainable way of living in a much less unequal world. Sadly, this agenda will not be implemented in the immediate future. But if it is not, the world faces the prospect of growing conflict and catastrophe. Lester Brown points to the way in which the experience of Pearl Harbour gave the US the motivation to turn around the organisation of its whole economy in order to prepare for war. The war experience in the UK shows what massive change is possible. Maybe it will take the growth of catastrophe resulting from the consequences of global warming, peak oil, the anger of the Middle East, growing poverty and weak states to create the international will to create a system capable of dealing with the problems in prospect. But I am certain that the necessary changes will not be made unless those who work in the field of development and humanitarianism cease to work so quietly and so separately from the general thrust of foreign policy. They must of course continue the work, but must also find the courage to challenge the current errors of Western foreign policy and demand much more stridently the full blooded implementation of the principles of the UN Charter, International Humanitarian Law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.