Trusteeship for Helpless Countries


November 30, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF DL Paris

Paris. -- Thanksgiving weekend is an appropriate time fo reflection on those who have nothing to be thankful for. There are plenty of them in the United States, whom it has been official policy to consider objects of economic and social predestination, people created by God to populate ghettos or become ''street people,'' and to die young and drugged.

The philosophy of the new Clinton administration is activist, unresigned to the presumed fatalities of the marketplace, so we may hope to see some change in this. But an equal fatality, and a more easily justified one, functions with respect to the catastrophic lives and deaths of people beyond America's -- or anyone in the West's -- direct contact, for whom we are not in a causal sense responsible.

Africa's famine and civil-war victims, and those of wars in Bosnia and the former Soviet Union, catch our passing attention and fleeting compassion when pictures or a witness make us pay attention. But they are as simply forgotten, because what, after all, can we really do?

Beyond simple charity -- money, food, medical assistance -- there is more that can be done than we commonly admit. Much was written and said after the Gulf War about ''new world orders,'' and many believed that a revived United Nations, freed of the Cold War veto, could make a serious change in international relations.

A remarkable amount actually has been done. There is criticism of how the United Nations has functioned in Cambodia, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, but by comparison with what the international community has been able to accomplish in the past, the record is not bad at all.

Ideas of new world order, however, have gone aground on the very hard problem posed by countries like Iraq or Serbia, outlaw powers, yet serious and sovereign states, dangerous to their neighbors and defying international opinion, able to be checked only by major military counterforce, which other countries are reluctant to employ. But there also are simpler problems of order in contemporary international society, where a great deal might be accomplished.

A recent list of ''populations in danger,'' published by the French humanitarian group, Doctors Without Frontiers, lists Somalia as the place where people are most at risk today, with Sudan a neglected second -- neglected because neither humanitarian agencies nor the press find it easy to get to the Sudan, where a struggle that is both regional and religious in character has been going on since 1983, with an estimated 600,000 fatalities.

After that come the populations at risk in the Azerbaijan-Armenian struggle, the Bosnians, the Kurds and on through a depressing list that includes South Americans (in Peru) and Asians (in Burma and Sri Lanka), as well as people in other African countries, including Mozambique. (One could add Liberia today, and Angola should the struggle resume there.)

These risks fall into two categories. One is where a government is at war with a dissident part (or former part) of its population. The roots of conflict usually are ethnic, communal or religious difference. There is an authentic struggle of interests or identity, often a consequence of arbitrary national frontiers drawn during the imperial period.

The other case is when there is feeble government or virtually none at all, and an anarchic struggle goes on among local warlords, caught up in a fight for loot or power which has its own dynamic and from which they could not extricate themselves if they wanted. This notably is the case in Somalia and Liberia.

Both cases call out for external intervention either to impose order upon anarchy or to separate the regional or ethnic combatants. In Africa, this certainly is feasible. The combatants usually are heavily over-armed -- thanks mainly to the Cold War operations of the KGB, Cubans, South Africa and the CIA -- but would be incapable of serious resistance to a modern and disciplined intervention from outside, prepared to impose its own government. They are too weak, too confused, too undisciplined. Order and peace could be restored if the international community wished to do so.

This, of course, means neo-colonialism. But let us give it a better name, with solid historical warranty. The institution of mandated territories was established after World War I by Article 22 of the League of Nations in order to provide government for dependent territories. (After World War II this was turned into the U.N. trusteeship system, but by then only very small territorial entities were concerned. Only Micronesia, in the Pacific, remains a trusteeship today, governed by the U.S.)

The mandate system was an innovation in international law in that the mandate existed for the sake of the inhabitants of the territory and was supervised by the international community, acting through the league. In most cases the provisional or potential independence of the people involved was recognized, but was subjected to the demonstration of their ability to govern themselves.

The mandate system should be revived today, although with an international force directly under the United Nations as executor of the mandate, rather than an individual nation. The multinational U.N. peace-keeping commands are a useful model for this.

There are societies today in danger of extermination. In their interest, and the interest of international community itself, they deserve to be placed under international administration and protection. We cannot remain simple spectators at the corporate suicide of peoples incapable of governing -- or saving -- themselves.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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