Ireland has important role in rapid reaction force debate


The international agenda is awash with humanitarian crises brought vividly to our attention on television screens and newspaper reports. Civil war in Sierra Leone, Ethiopian famine, Mozambique flooding are three current African examples; ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and secessionist rebellion in Chechnya have preoccupied Europeans in the last year.

They raise in acute form the question of what the rest of the world can do to help.

That is being addressed within the United Nations and the European Union in ways that overlap intriguingly and bear closer examination. The outcome of these negotiations and discussions will have large implications for Ireland's developing role in international security.

The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, has repeatedly called for these issues to be decided upon so the UN can fulfill its mandate in this new century. In his annual report to the General Assembly last year he spoke of "a wide debate of profound importance to the resolution of conflicts from the Balkans to Central Africa to East Asia".

He has appointed an expert group to bring forward proposals on humanitarian intervention in time for them to be considered at a special Millennium Summit of heads of state and government in New York next September. He speaks of the need for new capabilities and assets, including "combat and combat support capabilities for peacekeeping" - robust talk indeed for those used to more passive mandates for UN intervention.

Among that group is Noel Dorr, former secretary-general of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who is also Ireland's representative on the negotiating group preparing the current EU treaty changes on representation and decision-making.

He sees four major challenges facing the emerging concept of humanitarian intervention*. What criteria should apply? Should it take place only where there is systematic killing or ethnic cleansing or a gross and continuing violation of a whole population's rights?

The kind of intervention is a range of possible action from sanctions to the use of force, and with due regard for the Iraq dilemma of inflicting suffering on the very population it is intended to help, while the rulers remain largely unaffected. Selectivity is a crucial issue. Does Kosovo or Sierra Leone qualify more? What of Article 2.7 of the UN Charter which inhibits or prevents intervention in a state's internal affairs?

What, fourthly, of the Security Council veto by the five permanent members used to block a fully justified humanitarian intervention? Can that be limited by pressure from the other 183 states as part of an overall package of reform and revitalisation of the UN?

It is only by addressing these questions that the kind of international intervention force called for in this column last week by John O'Shea of GOAL can come into being.

There has been much discussion about the role of the British troops sent to Sierra Leone to help evacuate British, Commonwealth, EU and US nationals. They are not committed to the UN force, but have been used to stiffen resistance to the rebel force holding 500 of them hostage and then arrested their leader, Foday Sankoh.

There is talk of mission creep and the difficulty of formulating an exit strategy; but why, many ask, should the British troops and their superior equipment and training not be formally committed to the UN force, given Britain's former imperial role in Sierra Leone and its key role in cobbling together the flawed deal whose collapse has caused the crisis there?

It is all a reminder that the European Union's rapid reaction force of 60,000 troops is currently being actively assembled. Its terms of reference were defined in the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty as "humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping tasks and tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking".

The six-month French EU presidency beginning in July will have as a major priority the organisation of a conference to pledge troops, equipment and military capabilities to the force.

French representatives expect all member-states will participate according to their national capacities and obligations to the EU as a whole. Ireland's contribution, on a proportional basis, could be up to 1,000 troops.

They would need to be equipped and capable of operating to NATO standards. They would become involved in joint manoeuvres and planning through political and military structures now being put in place on an interim basis pending clarification of their precise mandate within the EU treaties.

The European Commission's legal service has recently recommended that no change to the treaties is required beyond what is contained in the Amsterdam Treaty, a position with which the French authorities now agree. That is to be decided at the next EU summit in Feira, Portugal, next month.

At the Helsinki summit last December Ireland (with Britain) insisted that the reaction force does not imply the creation of a European army. There is no collective security clause. Participation in operations involving the rapid reaction force is voluntary.

Ireland was also actively concerned that the objectives of the EU's foreign security and defence policies should be in conformity with the principles of the UN Charter, which is reflected in the legal documentation involved.

This raises the intriguing question of where the EU rapid reaction force could be used in future. Its most plausible and likely role will be to police the periphery of a continentally enlarging EU through destabilisation and peace policies.

But French representatives point out that no geographical limitation is specified. And others raise the question of whether such a well-equipped and organised force should be limited to Europe when crises such as Mozambique, East Timor or Sierra Leone arise. Would that become prey to neo-imperial power projection or could it be tailored to a renewed UN intervention force through systematic mandating and preparedness?

Ireland and other EU neutral or militarily non-aligned states could have an important role in influencing these issues. Of course, the assembly of this EU force will take time. But it is surely under way.

This week the British government signalled an important commitment to it by announcing it will purchase European rather than US airlift and missile reequipment. And last month the Finnish and Swedish foreign ministers announced an initiative to enhance EU civilian crisis management, including policing, judicial and administrative reconstruction and rescue services. They mention Mozambique flooding, the Turkish earthquake and Kosovo policing as appropriate objects of the policy.

It would be good to see a real convergence between Ireland's EU and UN experience in addressing these questions. That would be relevant, too, in the campaign to win a seat on the Security Council at the autumn session inaugurated by the special Millennium Summit in New York.

* Trocaire Development Review, 1999