The Strengths and the Limits of the United Nations’ Interventions in Territorial Disputes

Strengths and the Limits of the United Nations’ Interventions in Territorial Disputes

The United Nations is an international organization that has been officially created the 24th October 1945. The UN mission is to gather the world countries in a perspective of peace and development, in the respect of the principles of justice and human dignity. This Organization helps states to solve their international problems without obtruding the sovereignty of any state. The United Nations counts 192 countries with the last adhesion of the republic of Montenegro in 2006. These countries aggregate in the General Assembly, which offers a kind of political platform of discussion that aims to find optimum solutions to international problems.

Among the global problems the United Nations faces and tries to resolve, we find the problematic of territorial disputes. A territorial dispute is a disagreement about the belonging of a territory or a portion of it. It may concern different types of territorial entities, states and some territorial subdivisions such as regions. These kinds of disputes have generated numerous conflicts. Europe has been particularly concerned by wars that were essentially due to state’s will of territory enlargements. In fact, at that time, the larger was the state, the more powerful it was perceived. Today; however, the principle causes of territorial disputes are different. States may aim to enlarge their territories in order to gain natural resources or littoral access. Moreover, the claim may be secessionist. In fact, people who are sharing the same ethnicity, religion, or language may self- determine themselves as being a nation and, as it is their right, may will to get their own modern sovereign territorial state. The number of these territorial disagreements is not to be neglected, this is why in its objective of peace keeping, the United Nations forbids ,thanks to the contemporary principle of international juridical order, forbids any use of force in case of territorial disputes. Actually, according to the United Nations Charts’ first chapter’s second article: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations” (Warner , 931) . Instead of military actions, the United Nations
promotes the dialogue between the concerned parties and does take some notable measures in order to insure security and order in the concerned areas. In fact, even though it is against military actions for territorial acquisitions, the United Nations does recognize the right of self determination of peoples and gives the possibility to those who will to create a state according to ethnic, national and communal bases (Danspeckgruber, 67). However, one can notice some weaknesses in the way this international organization tries to put into practice some of the international principles that have been ratified. Despite the existence of a UN’s judiciary organ which is represented by the international court of Justice in The Hague ,second capital of the Netherlands, and the existence of the UN’s Department of the Political affairs, the application of the international law still tributary of states consent (Danspeckgruber, 101). This is why, the aim of this paper is to, first, define the means used by the United Nations to achieve stability in these problematic regions of the world. Then, the analysis will focus on the limits of the UN capacities of intervention and international law’s implementation.

At its creation, the United Nations have been endowed with six principle bodies. In fact, it disposes of a General Assembly, a Security Council, an Economic and Social Council, a Trustship Council, a Secretariat and it finally has an International Court of Justice. Among the cited organs of this non governmental organization, the International Court of Justice, the General Assembly and the Security Council are the three main tools used by the UN in order to maintain peace in disputed areas. Furthermore, in the aim of reinforcing the UN capacity in implementing its will of pacification, it has established in 1992 the Department of the Political Affairs which has for mission, according to the UN official website, the “advising [of] the U.N. Secretary-General on actions that could advance the cause of peace; providing support and guidance to U.N. peace envoys and political missions in the field.” These three peace promotion organs, plus the DPA, have helped and are still helping the UN in its quest of political stability, war preventions, and disputes’ resolutions among the most conflicting regions.

This is illustrated in many cases of territorial disputes. Directly after its creation, and just after the Second World War and the decolonization period, the United Nations has been confronted to the problematic of boundaries and territorial disputes in Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. In addition, about three decades later, and because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the apartheid regime in South Africa, other contentious territorial disputes have emerged in the Balkans the Caucasus, and once again in Africa. Some of these are still unresolved and still cause humanitarian catastrophes and miseries. However, one cannot ignore how helpful were and still are the United Nations peace keeping organs in the process of conflicts’ prevention and potential resolutions. The resolved case of East Timor does support this claim.

East Timor is an Asian country that is constituted of the eastern half of the Timor Island. It has the geographical characteristics of an enclave and is surrounded by West Timor, which is the Indonesian part of the island. East Timor has for capital the city of Dili (Elliot, 238). This newly independent country was a former Portuguese colony. But, before getting the status of modern sovereign territorial state, this latter passed through painful years of independence’s quest. Since the withdraw of the Portuguese forces from the region, and because of the raise of the left ideologies in the east part of the Timor island, Indonesia and Australia, the two neighbouring states, felt a threat. The two were definitely allying the western bloc in the context of the cold war and were apprehending a soviet’s friend next door. Moreover, Indonesia was very interested in the mineral resources East Timor has in its continental shelf. This is how in December 7 1975, Indonesian troupes began invading the region through a heavy military operation named “Operasi Seroja”. The military material used during the invasion was almost entirely provided by the United States; only a small part of it was from the Australian aid to Jakarta. This is how Indonesia claimed East Timor to be listed among its provinces. Nevertheless, the United Nations did never recognize East Timor as being part of the Republic of Indonesia. Therefore, “East Timororian” independence was still somehow conceivable at the international level thanks to the international court of justice’s rejection of the Indonesian request of making the annexed region globally recognised as being part of Indonesia. In fact, the ergo omens rule, which is the Latin juridical term for the designation of the right of opposition, was applicable giving the self-determination of peoples’ principle (Elliot; 239, 240). Nonetheless, the UN did not attempt to stop the occupation until 1991. In fact, despite the illegitimate status of Indonesia in the East Timor, the international community did only react 14 years after because of the revolting events of the Dili massacre which was a carnage that has been intended by the Indonesian forces against the civilians who were protesting for the region’s independence. This massacre presented the turning point in the way the international community dealt with the issue (Martin, 21). Seeing the atrocities and the injustice that suffered from the East Timorian people who’s only will was the application of their legitimate right of self determination ,as procured by the international law, The UN finally decided to intervene.

The UN first attempt was the insurance of dialogue and certain kind of stability in the region. This is how it created in 1995 an annual meeting between the concerned parts in the All-Inclusive Intra-East Timorese Dialogue (AIETD). Indonesia, thanks to the international pressure, proposed to apply devolution to resolve the problem by giving a partial autonomy to the East Timor under the Indonesian sovereignty. But the pro- independence refused to cooperate (Martin, 67). Therefore, the UN decided, with the difficult approval of Indonesia, to organize a referendum in order to decide of the future of the region. The UN did create a special mission to make sure of the good unwinding of the ballot in a non-violent environment. In fact, The United Nations Mission in East Timor, or UNAMET and despite the fact that it was “struggling to implement the popular consultation on the ground” (Martin, 79), did succeed in getting the voices of the Eastimorise people. “The DEO teams, with their CIVPOL colleagues, were in the field as early as 4:00 A.M on Monday 30 August, moving materials and personnel into place and organizing their polling centers. They found large crowd of voters already waiting, and when reports came in from around the territory, UNAMET estimated as many as 50 percent of all registered voters were present when polling began at 06:30 A.M. […]. No one had expected such an overwhelming response. At every polling center, there were stories of the distances walked or other extraordinary efforts to vote by old, disabled, pregnant, or sick voters. Despite the early crowds, surprisingly few problems arose at the polling stations; voters stood quietly in queues for several hours under the burning sun, patiently waiting their turn” (Martin; 89, 90). This show how strong was the will of the Eastimorise people. The United Nations thanks to its implication in the contentious issue participated at guarantying their legitimate right of self- determination. They had that sentiment of nation’s belonging and did scream at the world’s face their will of having a free and independent East Timor by voting at 78,5 percent for their country’s independence (Martin, 94) . But the Timorese pro- integration militia’s answer to the vote was tragic and extremely bloody. The actions aimed the destruction of the infrastructures. Schools, homes, hospitals and water systems were divested. According to Chomsky, "In one month, this massive military operation murdered some 2,000 people, raped hundreds of women and girls, displaced three-quarters of the population, and demolished 75 percent of the country's infrastructure" (72). The UN presence was compromised. For the sick of their security, all the UNAMET’s members were evacuated. But, to answer to the militia’s attacks, and in line with its care of respecting the East Timorese people will, the UN created the INTERFET, or the International Force for East Timor. The INTERFET was composed of a number of countries but was by a majority composed of Australian troops and it was led by general major Peter Cosgrove. It did first evacuate all Indonesian presence out of the region. After that, its second mission was to establish order and security in the divested region. Meanwhile, the UN did also urge on other countries to put pressure on Indonesia. This is how and even though the US and the Indonesian Republic had very friendly kind of relationship, President Clinton had used economical power to threaten this latter. This is how, the Indonesian forces withdrawal was completed and the UN had been finally able to establish the UNAET (United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor). This transitional administration lasted until the held of the elections for the designation of the first East Timorese government and president in 2001. By 2002, Xanana Gusmão has been elected at the head of East Timor. Finally, in the 27th September, 2002, the newly independent state became the 191’s country to siege in the United Nations (Martin, 115).

The case of East Timor proofs the United Nations’ strengths in territorial disputes resolutions. In fact, the UN has successfully been able to guarantee the right of self determination to the people of East Timor by taking the responsibility of organizing the referendum that clearly showed that these latter were in favor of an independent East Timor. It did also intervene to stop the massacres caused by the pro- Indonesians and helped in the administration of the region until it was able to have its own government. This passed through the creation of a number of sub UN bodies specific to the region. This resolved issue stresses the importance of the existence of this international institution which tries very hard in very difficult contexts to guarantee security, peace and people’s will, despite the numerous constraints imposed by the inalienable states’ right of sovereignty.

The previous analysis of the United Nations role of mediation and peacekeeping in disputed territories is only one lecture of the issue. Another analysis could show the weaknesses and the limits of the UN intervention and show how unfair and arbitrary are some decisions and how the UN apparatus is not sufficient and does depend on some powerful countries’ will even in the most “successful” cases’ resolution such as the one of East Timor.

In her article “Why the UN Fails” Trouvals explains the reason of the UN inefficiency. She stated that“The United Nations cannot mediate [because] it has too many mouths to speak with one voice, lacks the resources needed for political leverage, and diminishes the credibility of its own promises by its incoherence.” (52). The reasons given by the author can be verified on the ground and if one looks back to the East Timorese case, he or she would discover the limitations of the UN intervention that do actually include the reasons advanced by Trouvals. The UN does crucially lack of resources and of mediation’s capacity. Its interventions are not systematic and are not without difficulties. They depend on the way it deals with the concerned parts and on how other powerful countries can have weight on the balance.

Again, in the so said UN intervention’s success, East Timor, limits and weaknesses of the international organization are highly notable. The first reproach would be to criticize the long time period the international community has waited for before intervening. Here we can notice that there was no politic of prevention. The United Nations, although aware of the critical situation in the region, did not move forward for any early resolution. Indeed, as mentioned before, Indonesia did try to get the UN recognition of the region of East Timor as being under its legal sovereignty through the international court of justice, and this request has been refused by la Hogue. But, then, there were no attempts of moving Indonesian forces back from the area. Indonesia effectively controlled East Timor despite the International Court of Justice’s decision. The situation remained unresolved and because the good US relationship with both the Indonesian republic and Australia, the situation remained unchanged since 1976 until 1991. Only because of the images of the Dali Massacre that did come in the houses of millions of Australians, Americans and other people, and thanks to the public opinion pressure, these two countries helped the United Nations establishing a number of missions in order to hold a referendum and to come over the Indonesian presence and finally to insure the transition into a stable, sovereign East Timorese government.

The United Nations system of intervention is not independent and rely on some hegemonic countries will. This system cannot longer be sustainable. Our world today knows a multitude of territorial disputes and relying on the geopolitical interests of some in order to resolve the contentious of others is not the principle under which this organization has been created. It is said that the UN is for peacekeeping and development promotion, but as one looks through its history of interventions, he or she would feel how this so said principle is not the one in practice. The UN is not promoting any pacifism, it is only following the wish of those powerful countries; depending on their interest they may decide of whether intervening and helping the UN stabilizing such or such region of the world or leaving it and its population to the misery and disasters of political instability. The East Timor case has been certainly resolved. But one should wonder at which price: At the price of the massacre of thousands of people and at the price of giving up its continental shelf, rich in mineral resources to Australia. This was the only way to attract the Australian and other strong countries’ attention and to finally get their “inalienable” right of self determination. As argued by Wilcox,” the United Nations is in a period of peril […] The West and its friends are not united in their support of it or in their advocacy of policies[…] The fiscal basis upon which the organization operates is not sound” (114). Trouval gives even more support to this logic by stating that “Part of the U.N. problem is that it has no readily accessible military or economic resources of its own. It is entirely dependent on member states, or at least some of them, to provide the resources necessary for a successful mediation. The United Nations cannot even harness the assets of international financial and trading institutions. Doing so depends yet again on the decisions of member states […] Governments are usually reluctant to commit resources to such a venture, negotiations for such commitments are slow and cumbersome, and the resources states do make available are often inadequate. These U.N. weaknesses are perceived by disputants. Parties are likely to doubt that U.N. promises of assistance or threats of punishment will actually be fulfilled.” (52). Therefore, it is legitimate to criticize and to put into question the whole system the United Nations operates with in order to be able to reach its objectives of peace promotion. The international organization has to rethink its strategies in a way of promoting, first, its independence from the hegemonic countries before helping any people getting their independence.

To conclude, it is true to say that the United Nations promotes the dialogue between countries that know territorial disputes and that it does take some notable measures in order to insure security and order in the concerned areas. The case of East Timor proofs the United Nations’ strengths in territorial disputes resolution. In fact, the UN has successfully been able to guarantee the right of self determination to the people of East Timor by taking the responsibility of organizing the referendum that clearly showed that these latter were in favor of an independent East Timor. It did also intervene to stop the massacres caused by the pro- Indonesians and helped in the administration of the region until it was able to have its own government. This resolved issue stresses out the importance of the existence of this international institution which tries very hard in very difficult contexts to guarantee security, peace and people’s will. Nevertheless, another lecture of this issue is not to be neglected. Despite that East Timor is considered as being a victory, it also shows the weaknesses and limits of the UN intervention. The UN does significantly lack of funds and of mediation’s capacity. Its interventions are not methodical and are not without difficulties. They depend on the way it deals with the concerned parts and on how other powerful countries can have weight on the balance. For instance, in the same context of the East Timor’s conflict, we can notice that there was no politic of prevention. The United Nations, even though aware of the critical situation in the region, did not move forward for any early resolution. Therefore, the situation remained unresolved until 1991. All in all, although the UN system with its six bodies gives a first impression of credibility and reliability, if one looks deeper, the need of its reorganization and of a new international jurisdiction would seem to be vital. In fact, it is unacceptable to have such an organization that is meant to serve impartially the interest of the humanity and to promote noble causes, being at the mercy of some influential states at the depend of many others; while millions of people are living in the fear, waiting for the providential United Nations to come and make their fundamental rights respected. This paper has just dealt with the issue of The UN interventions limitations in cases of territorial disputes, but the weaknesses of the UN action are not limited to this kind of international contentious and do concern its intervention in regions that are victim of civil wars. Unfortunately, sometimes these weaknesses are translated into genocides, as it was the case with Rwanda, and other humanitarian catastrophes. Are the will, the dignity and sometimes the lives of millions of people less worthy than the capitalistic interest of some leading countries?

Works Cited

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Martin, Ian. Self- Determination in East Timor: The United Nations, the Ballot and International Intervention. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2001.
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