By Peter Langille
Dr. H. Peter Langille specializes in peace and conflict studies, United Nations peace operations, conflict resolution and mediation, and independent analysis of defense and security policy.
President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address in 1961 warned us about the existence of a military-industrial complex that exerts “unwarranted influence” and displays “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power.” Shortly after that famous speech we learned for the first time about a viable alternative: In a landmark document called “Freedom From War,” President John F. Kennedy and officials in the State Department determined that preventing war and encouraging wider disarmament “can only be achieved” by a more effective UN and a “UN Peace Force” to safeguard legitimate interests. This approach is still available to us today. Kennedy’s declaration has evolved to become a proposal for a United Nations Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS) — a more sophisticated option than Kennedy’s early idea of a UN standing force. Our dysfunctional, war-prone system no longer needs to be so anarchic and destructive, nor does it have to be ruled and selectively enforced by the strongest military powers or by the Western military alliance, NATO.
The UNEPS concept is effectively a “UN 911 first-responder” for complex emergencies. If it were to come into being, the UN would finally have the capacity to address four of its tougher assigned tasks: (1) to help prevent armed conflict and genocide, (2) protect civilians at extreme risk, (3) ensure prompt start-up of demanding peace operations, and (4) provide for pressing human needs where others either cannot or will not. What’s distinctly different in this idea? The UNEPS proposal calls for a permanent, standing, and integrated UN formation. The force would be highly trained and well-equipped, and ready for immediate deployment upon authorization of the UN Security Council. This service would be multidimensional (including civilians, police, and military) and multifunctional—that is, capable of diverse assignments and equipped with specialized skills for handling security, humanitarian, health, and environmental crises.
As an integrated first-responder, a UNEPS is not limited to simply stopping direct violence; its work also extends from quick-impact to long-term projects of various kinds. A UNEPS would include specialists in conflict resolution and mediation, human rights monitors and educators, peace-building advisory units, and medical teams, giving it a far better prospect of addressing and solving any unfolding crisis.
A UNEPS need not be overly large. It should be composed of 13,500 dedicated professionals who are recruited, selected, trained, and employed by the UN, and chosen so as to ensure regional and gender-equitable representation. Ideally, the force would be located at a designated UN base under an operational headquarters and should also include two mobile-mission headquarters at sufficient strength to operate in high-threat environments.
Yet, unlike previous proposals, I believe that a UNEPS should complement existing UN Three further advantages of the UNEPS concept stand out.
1. First, overall UN peace operations would improve with such a standing first responder. Instead of taking six months-to-a year or more to deploy contingents from participating nations, the UN would have its own rapid and reliable standing peace service able to quickly address a wide array of emergencies. That is, rather than the current UN focus on “post-conflict stabilization” that deploys after the fighting stops—much like a police force that intervenes after a killing or rape has concluded—a UNEPS is designed to provide an immediate preventive response within days. arrangements.
Prevention and protection are far more manageable tasks when a force arrives promptly before conflicts escalate and spread into worse violence. In turn, there should be less need for later, larger, longer, and far more costly operations. In other words, an ounce of prevention might be well worth a ton of cure.
Any preventive system works best as a deterrent, that is, when it seldom has to intervene to stem a crisis. As with any policing or defense effort, it’s best to be known to have the credible means to stop aggressors. In other words, a standing UNEPS would always convey a legitimate presence while still being ready 24/7 to discourage violence. Its deployable elements should be sufficient to deter most if not all belligerents and at the same time be fully able to operate in high-risk environments.
Because a UNEPS will be limited in size and composition, its optimum application is that of getting into action before a wider, unmanageable situation arises. In this respect, it may be seen as roughly analogous to the sort of fire extinguisher one keeps in the kitchen; it is useless once the entire house is ablaze, but usually very effective when the first flames begin to spread; and, it may be very helpful in protecting people, even in providing a safe area until additional help arrives.
2. Second, as a new model, a UNEPS is designed to encourage a wider shift toward providing prompt care to populations in need, and featuring a diverse array of useful services. We are now a “global neighborhood” with a greater need than ever for universal emergency services. Having gender-equitable composition would also give it better prospects for peacemaking and peace -building. Standards of service would also improve system-wide.
The need for more far-reaching system shifts in global peacemaking is already evident. Understandably, many governments will not stop preparing for more war until they see a universal commitment to ensure security that is backed up by a UN capacity that’s rapid and reliable. Increasingly, it is understood that progress in wider disarmament and even the implementation of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons depends on a coherent alternative to nuclear and conventional deterrence. This new alternative to the old system need not be similar to what now exists, i.e., large or powerfully destructive. It only needs to be credible, respected, and widely valued.
3. The third advantage of the UNEPS option is in its potential to serve as a UN “emergency security provider”— a crucial step toward ‘freedom from war’. As an emergency security service, the likely roles of a UNEPS would be similar to that of a firstresponder, that is, a trip-wire, a vanguard and a standing presence to dissuade, deter and, respond rapidly, if necessary.
As stated above, a UNEPS does not require heavy military elements nor a capacity for mid -to-high-intensity war-fighting. Because it represents the prestige of the international community, it is unlikely to encounter violent resistance from any national armed force. If back-up support is needed, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (France, China, Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom) will continue to have ample capacity in the near term. But they may not be needed so much in the long-term.
Contrary to official claims of a UN standing capacity’s “immense expense,” a UNEPS would also be a cost-saver. Its development will entail approximately $3.5 billion in startup costs, with annual recurring costs of $1.5 billion, shared proportionally among the 193 member states of the UN. Because UNEPS will be a credible deterrent, it will cut the size, length, cost, and frequency of UN operations. Success in just one of these areas would provide a real return on the investment.
Clearly, the even bigger bonus in developing a UNEPS is that it initiates an overdue cooperative process. It offers a large step toward a global peace system, one that encourages military build-down and disarmament and freeing up vast resources to help with the climate emergency, pandemic recovery, and a looming social crisis. As a result, it might save trillions. There is truth to the slogan, “Planet or War, You Choose.” Our heavily-militarized world is unsustainable and now a serious threat to human survival. Our future, if there is to be one, urgently depends on far deeper cooperation, not confrontation.
Last September a “Global Census Poll” found “widespread skepticism that the United Nations is well-prepared for the challenges of the next decade.” Skepticism spreads when there is too little to inspire a constituency and further support.
It’s an unlikely coincidence that UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterre recently announced that another Agenda for Peace will be forthcoming, an event that presents a unique opportunity to boost the UNEPS idea.
In elaborating on his priorities, UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres emphasizes prevention and protection, reducing violence 32 and placing women at the center of security policies. In addition, the People’s Declaration of June 2020 explicitly called for more standing capacities available on short-notice for UN peace operations.
We now have encouraging precedents calling for a UNEPS in the U.S. House of Representatives (H-Res 180 and H-Res 213), and efforts are underway for a third.
Thankfully, millions are now active in the struggle to save the planet and succeeding generations. Many have also mobilized in resistance to more war and higher military spending. But it seems unlikely that peace will prevail or that war and armed conflict will be prevented simply from popular resistance or calls for cuts.
Buckminister Fuller once stated, “you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” The proposed UNEPS is such a new model to solve multiple problems. A UN Emergency Peace Service is no panacea or cure-all, but a powerful new approach to help solve real problems. And, it might be a game-changer if “we the people” step up, pull together, and give the idea a boost. With so many shared global emergencies, it’s time to give peace another chance.