High priest of peace preaches protection for war innocents

Axworthy's sermon plays well with Canada as UN Security Council chair, but will human-security agenda survive?


Friday, April 21, 2000

United Nations -- The faithful are drifting into the sanctuary, its walls covered by cobalt-blue tapestry and dominated by a huge inspirational mural depicting the ascent of humankind.

Lloyd Axworthy, this month's designated high priest, has arrived. Jacket open, hands in pockets, he chats and jokes with Richard Holbrooke, the eager new U.S. member of this council of elders.

In a few minutes, the service -- that is, the meeting of the United Nations Security Council -- will begin, with Mr. Axworthy in the president's chair. The 15 ambassadors and assorted other dignitaries will render homage to Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister for the umpteenth time this week.

Later -- much later -- they will adopt a Canada-driven resolution on one of his most cherished topics: aggressive UN action to protect the innocent victims of war.

"We need to adapt international practice to make the security of people -- their rights, safety and lives -- a collective priority," Mr. Axworthy tells them. "This means rewiring global machinery to fit the needs of this new century -- not the last one."

The resolution condemns the deliberate targeting of civilians by warring factions. Without being specific, it says it will do what it can to stop them.

It asks UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to use his reports to highlight attacks on refugees and other civilians. It says it will consider mandating UN peace missions to defend civilians under threat of attack, as it has done in one or two cases.

As a result, nothing will happen. That is, nothing will happen next week, and perhaps nothing will ever happen in ways that can be measured and directly attributed to what happened here on Wednesday, in what passes for Earth's boardroom.

That's how it is with rewiring. Years later, when the circuit-breaker flips and a fire is prevented, who remembers the electrician?

Mr. Axworthy holds the Security Council's rotating chairmanship this month, two-thirds of the way through Canada's two-year term as an elected member. The UN charter gives the council responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, and the power to authorize the use of force.

On Tuesday, over cappuccino in the UN delegates' lounge, Mr. Axworthy put his feet up on the edge of the coffee table and declared: "We've got a Security Council that is now looking at a bunch of issues that they didn't look at two years ago."

The issues make up what he calls the "human-security agenda" -- problems of a post-Cold-War world pockmarked by local and regional conflicts and growing environmental concerns. He uses the term so often that even sympathetic Canadian officials have been seen to roll their eyes on hearing it.

Human-security proponents argue that people, not states, ought to be the chief concern in international relations. As achievements, they list the Canada-sponsored 1997 treaty banning antipersonnel land mines and a recent accord limiting the recruitment of child soldiers, as well as a new focus at the UN on the devastating effects of civil wars.

"I think it has given some real pointed direction to what we try to do as a country," Mr. Axworthy said. "It has a lot of support in Canada, and I think it's a way of husbanding our resources and targeting them . . . in a way that can make a difference."

It all sounds pretty people-friendly -- unless, perhaps, you happened to be an insecure human living in Belgrade last year.

In Mr. Axworthy's eyes, Canada's participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's bombing of Serbia was justified on human-security grounds -- because it was undertaken to stop the threatened expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

That argument -- and the fact that NATO didn't wait for UN authorization -- leads some countries to wonder whether human security isn't just code for minding other people's business.

Few humans anywhere were less secure this winter than Chechens. But Russia squelched any notion of the Security Council debating Moscow's bombardment of the breakaway republic.

Like many UN delegates, Russian Ambassador Sergei Lavrov was full of praise this week for Mr. Axworthy and Canadian Ambassador Robert Fowler.

"Canada has been very active as president of the Security Council, very focused on human-security issues," Mr. Lavrov said in an interview. "We support this emphasis."

But for him the principle that the UN doesn't interfere in members' internal affairs unless asked is equally important.

"I don't think Canada is going to be against the consensus which exists among all member states that there is no part of international law which is above the other parts of international law," Mr. Lavrov said.

So resolutions such as Wednesday's measure on protecting civilians caught up in war are full of when-necessaries, as-appropriates and other caveats.

Down the road, they can be cited by any of the council's five permanent members -- Russia, the United States, China, Britain and France -- when threatening to use its veto on an issue it considers vital.

Such language is haggled over in private diplomatic bargaining before the holding of a formal, open council meeting featuring a mind-numbing series of platitude-laden speeches.

Like all council resolutions, Wednesday's was composed of paragraphs beginning with verbs. The council emphasizes, notes, reaffirms. It invites, recalls and reiterates. Sometimes it agrees to act -- the key here being the verb "decides."

Not this time. Nevertheless, Mr. Axworthy said Wednesday's resolution marked a fundamental shift.

He said it contains a checklist for the council to consider when it is deciding what to do about a threat to global peace. He said he's trying to "instill into the Security Council procedures, operations, mandates, a series of considerations and requirements that will give some continuing weight" to the protection of civilians.

Ottawa was severely criticized over the Kosovo campaign, and in recent speeches Mr. Axworthy has sought to develop criteria for military action in support of a humanitarian cause.

This week, during a meeting with Mr. Annan, he suggested the UN set up a commission on humanitarian intervention, similar to a 1987 inquiry into the relationship between development and the environment, which was chaired by Norway's Gro Harlem Brundtland and which became a landmark of environmentalism.

"To get this thing beyond some idle foreign ministers giving speeches," he said, "I think we need to have a more concerted process."

What will happen to the human-security agenda after December, when Canada's two-year term runs out? Countries such as Norway (now campaigning for a council term) will carry on, Mr. Axworthy said.

"It's like a relay race. You pass the baton around. You try to do a fast 400 and then put the baton on and keep the thing going."

Mr. Axworthy has more than four years under his belt as Foreign Affairs Minister and a quarter-century in Canadian politics. Canadian foreign-affairs specialists are sometimes moved to speculate about a move to the global stage, but UN-watchers say no high-profile international posts that would be suitable for Mr. Axworthy are coming open soon.

In the delegates' lounge, asked about his future, Mr. Axworthy did his best to look enigmatic. "In case you haven't noticed, I've been fairly busy," he said. "I haven't had a lot of time to look into it."

Original article