Article by the President of the Republic of Finland


The response to crises must be consistent and swift

President of the Republic Martti Ahtisaari interviewed in Le Monde 4.11.1999


While I was working at the United Nations during the occupation of Kuwait and the ensuing war, my subordinates asked me:

"How can it be possible, Mr. Ahtisaari, that having thought when we began here that we were working for a peace organisation, we are now working in an organisation which permits a war? Why has the UN sanctioned the use of force in this situation, why not in other similar crises?"

I tried to answer them as well as I could. We must be satisfied that the international community is now able to react in a situation in which a state occupies and destroys its small neighbouring country. It is, of course, possible that actions have not been consistent in comparable earlier situations. Nonetheless we must act with an emphasis on justice now that the preconditions for doing so exist, and we must in future try to be consistent whenever it is possible.

That conversation has come to mind several times this year as we have followed the various stages of the Kosovo crisis. Over and over again the question has been repeated: "Why is there a reaction now, why not elsewhere?"

The question is justified. However, the correct answer is not that a wrong should have been allowed to happen because that may have been done earlier. Instead we must think how justice can be implemented more often in the future.

A matter that I have been pondering together with various discussion partners for a long time is how the consistency and effectiveness of the action taken by the international community in crisis situations could be increased. In my view it would be possible to develop both decision-making and the implementation of decisions.

Our goal must be a system that is founded on tenable principles, balanced and consistent, and which also executes operations efficiently and gets results. That presupposes development of international law, the creation of new methods of operation and probably also new types of resources.

An idea that I presented for consideration in a speech in the Hague last January was that the UN Secretary-General could ask the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion in the event of failure to find a solution to a crisis. A legal opinion presented by the Court with all of its authority might then help the Security Council to find the necessary political agreement in a situation in which a state was threatened with international intervention either because it could no longer protect its citizens from armed violence or was unwilling to do so.

In the background to this initiative was the idea that an opinion of the Court would gradually steer the members of the Security Council and especially its permanent members towards more consistent behaviour in various crises. The initiative has not received unreserved support. I understand that attitude, because an opinion of the Court would contribute to limiting many countries’ freedom of discretion. Nevertheless, we must strive for greater predictability and consistency.

However, merely developing decision-making is not enough. An ability to implement decisions is also needed. Recent experiences teach us many lessons in this respect.

It is very fortunate that Australia was able to send its own forces to East Timor so rapidly immediately after a decision concerning the matter had emerged in the Security Council with Indonesia’s consent. Although only a few thousand soldiers were involved, we can be certain that numerous human lives were saved precisely because such rapid action was taken.

On the other hand, our experience of the way in which the civilian operation in Kosovo began shows what kinds of difficulties are encountered when rapid action is not possible. For example, the number of civilian police that have been put in place corresponds to only a fraction of the real need, even though it is months since the operation began. It may be that the dearth of police has contributed to intensifying the exodus of Serbs from the region.

Kosovo also taught us the importance of rapid action in helping refugees. If there had not been peacekeepers with all their logistical capacity in Macedonia, it would have taken a lot longer to build refugee camps, which would have added to human suffering. In this respect the international community had luck on its side.

Thus it is now more obvious than it used to be that we must develop the system in a way that makes it possible to speed up our reaction to emerging crises. During the Cold War nations tuned up their machinery to wage war rapidly and efficiently. The concentration now must be on accelerating efforts to wage peace.

Some years ago, the former UN Under-Secretary-General Brian Urquhart put forward an idea that is probably even more topical today. Namely, he did a study on a permanent international rapid deployment force, which would be at the disposal of the UN Security Council. In his assessment, a force of a few thousand soldiers would be sufficient to calm the situation in some or other crisis hot spot, provided it could be deployed in a few days.

The example of East Timor showed that what matters most from the perspective of calming a situation is the speed at which one gets there, not the size of the first force to arrive. The size of any crisis-management operation to suit a longer-term need could be determined once member states had gotten their own forces ready for deployment.

Urquhart’s initiative is a good foundation for further development. Several models for reducing lead times can certainly be found. If the idea of the UN having its own "Foreign Legion" does not seem realistic, means by which member states could place forces at the disposal of the Security Council and the Secretary-General at short notice should be pondered. It can not be done with the system that we have at present.

Similar ideas should be developed also on the civilian side. In what way could we prepare better to help refugees in conjunction with crises or natural catastrophes? How could the international community obtain the services of civilian police faster than in Kosovo?

There is a need for creativity and fresh-mindedness so that we can find implementable models to improve the international community’s ability to help civilians that have fallen victim to crises. We must, namely, remember that the ways in which our preparedness is improved are not the main consideration. What matters most is that we make progress towards a world in which justice and prospects of receiving help in crisis situations do not depend on where people live or the vagaries of politics.