An Eye That Does Not Slumber: the UN's Global Watch

The League of Nations ... should be the eye of the nations to keep watch upon the common interest, an eye that does not slumber, and eye that is everywhere watchful and attentive.
-- President Woodrow Wilson, Paris 1919

By Walter Dorn | 2003-10-01 12:00:00

Though the League never monitored global activities much, the United Nations does have "eyes and ears" that are watchful and attentive.The Secretary-General's office has become a vital clearing-house of information on the state of the world. True, during the Cold War, the Communist world, led by a veto-wielding Soviet Union, maintained an iron curtain of secrecy, but today the United Nations conducts monitoring on an unprecedented scale. It verifies peace agreements and documents human rights abuses. It monitors elections, tracks arms shipments, and identifies sanctions busters. It oversees military and police forces, inspects for weapons of mass destruction, and exposes terrorists. It warns of incipient crises and gathers evidence for international criminal tribunals.

Yet all this is not enough. The UN Secretaries-General have constantly complained that there is insufficient information to make the best decisions. Boutros Boutros-Ghali even recommended that the UN develop an "intelligence" capability, a proposal that member states rejected because the word "intelligence" implied nefarious snooping. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has made a valiant effort to establish an "Information and Strategic Analysis Secretariat" (ISAS), but this too is being resisted by a number of developing states who fear that the UN might pry into their internal affairs.

The Costs of Ignorance

Such resistance is understandable, but information is often crucial to the success of a UN mission. The trick is to uncover the true facts without antagonizing parties and endangering the peace process. Some of the worst crises and blunders that the UN has made have resulted from an insufficiency of information. For example, in 1982, Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar was caught unaware of the impending Argentine invasion of the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, despite his familiarity with the dispute. Also, in 1993, the Security Council established UN Safe Areas in the former Yugoslavia without a proper assessment of the vulnerabilities of these regions. The tragic massacres within the "protected" areas of Srebernica and Gorazde in Bosnia are a testament to lack of foresight. Again, in 1982 the UN was caught by surprise when Israel invaded Lebanon. And in 1990, peacekeepers failed to report on the impending invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, leaving the Secretary-General totally off-guard when the attack occurred. Furthermore, in 1996 the UN aborted a peacekeeping operation in Zaire amidst confusion about attacks on refugees. These are only a few of the serious results of UN ignorance of a situation. Ultimately, the fault can be traced back to the UN member states that do not provide the UN with resources to gather and analyze information.

Fortunately, the UN is becoming more effective in this information age. Foremost among the reasons for this improvement is technology, which makes information easier to access, store, analyze, and disseminate. UN officials (along with the rest of us) are using desktop computers and search engines to draw upon a huge number of sources. Still, the problems of "information overload and underuse" are common in the UN, as they are all over the developed world. With an ocean of information available, more time is required to sift through the mounds of it. But the overall effects are positive - especially since many of the findings of UN agencies are made available to the general public and to researchers around the world.

Information Dissemination

After gathering information, experts analyze the information and disseminate their conclusions. The UN and its agencies provide us with many of the statistics that paint a sobering picture of today's troubled world.

From the UN system, we learn about conflicts that are raging around the world. The Annual Report of the Secretary-General provides a survey of conflicts. For instance, we learn that between 80 and 90 per cent of those who die or are injured in conflicts are civilians - mostly children and mothers. UNICEF tells us that between 1990 and 2000, 2 million children were killed, 6 million injured or permanently disabled, and 12 million left homeless because of conflict. "Conflict has orphaned or separated more than 1 million children from their families in the last decade of the 20th century," states UNICEF's State of the World's Children report for 2002. Also, an estimated 300,000 children were forced or induced into combat in 2001.

Yet another UN agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), tells us that there are an estimated 35 million refugees and displaced people in the world - about one for every 160 persons on earth. About 80 per cent are women and children. Millions of hapless civilians fleeing conflict or persecution are assisted by UNHCR. The number of such people assisted by UNHCR has been about 21-22 million annually in the years 1998-2001. This figure includes 12 million refugees, 0.9 million asylum seekers, 0.8 million returned refugees, 6 million internally displaced persons of concern to UNHCR, and 1.7 million others of concern. Asia has the greatest number of persons "of concern," with nearly 8.5 million, followed by Africa with 6.1 million and Europe with 5.6 million people. Another UN organization, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), keeps track of and assists the 3.8 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The Food and Agricultural Organization issues famine alerts, and the UN Officer for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issues international appeals with telling details about the conditions of areas of conflict.

The UN also provides us with a picture of the arms holdings and transfers. From its voluntary register for major conventional armaments, we learn that the US accounts for about half of the global trade in these arms (tanks, planes, ships, and weapons of calibre over 100 mm) and the permanent five members of the Security Council account for well over four-fifths. More startling, perhaps, is the statistic that more than 68 per cent of the arms trade was absorbed by the developing world, which can ill afford them.

Small arms are the main killer in the world, having caused millions of deaths in the past decade. In a press release, "the UN takes aim at small arms," UNICEF and the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs estimate that there are 500 million small arms in the world - about one for each 12 inhabitants.

Hopeful news too

We also learn from UN reports of hopeful signs of disarmament, especially in countries coming out of conflict. Cambodia destroyed 15,000 weapons in public ceremonies in March and June 1999 alone. South Africa has pledged to destroy all surplus small arms, including about 260,000 automatic rifles and hundreds of tons of ammunition. In 1998, China undertook strong steps to confiscate illicit small arms, resulting in the destruction of some 300,000 weapons. Finally, we learn about the human condition in the world's nations through the UNDP's annual Human Development Reports. These studies show the correlation between deprivation and conflict. Of the 35 nations listed under the category of "low human development" in the Human Development Report 1999 about half (18) have experienced civil war or fought in international wars in the past decade.


True to Wilson's vision in 1919, monitoring by the international community is becoming a global watch for human security. The UN evolved over the past decade in many forms, but it is in its monitoring functions that we see the greatest growth. It is important to identify forces that have sought to slow down that evolution. For example, the United States is careful not to allow the UN to threaten its dominance in the intelligence arena, especially on matters where its intelligence reports might be challenged (e.g., on weapons of mass destruction in occupied Iraq). It has opposed general purpose arms verification for the UN.

Are there any dangers associated with an emerging global watch? Could the UN become a "big brother" (or, to some, a "big bother")? Not now, but perhaps in a century or so there may be reasons to worry. Such a concern has been a part of the human governance issue since time immemorial, including the age of the Roman Empire, when the question was frequently asked, "Who will watch the watchman?" Today, fortunately, we are just lucky to have a watchman on duty at all. To preclude worse situations, checks and balances need to be incorporated into our global surveillance system.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2003, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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