Kosovo proves Iraq needs the UN
Kosovo proves Iraq needs the UN
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Kosovo proves Iraq needs the UN

The United States is planning to institute an "efficient" American-led military administration in Iraq, which would transfer authority to a democratic Iraqi government after six months. It dismisses any major UN role postwar beyond co-ordinating humanitarian assistance, and cites Kosovo as an example of how the United Nations can become mired in a costly mission with few results.

The U.S. plan reflects a naive view of the challenges of governing postconflict societies. Democracy is not intuitive, and institution-building is a slow, frustrating process. Even without Saddam Hussein, democratic structures in Iraq will not automatically blossom. Building these structures requires time, experienced personnel, and knowledge of how to create accountable institutions in a politically complex, postconflict environment. Does this expertise reside within the U.S. and British military? Do they have the local, regional and international legitimacy to undertake this task?

The Bush administration unfairly dismisses the UN's achievements in Kosovo. While we at the International Crisis Group have been critical of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), most of UNMIK's weaknesses stem from the difficulties of repairing a society after decades of oppression and war.

A military-led administration in Iraq will face many of the same problems, but may lack the legitimacy, experience and institutional flexibility to succeed in the often-frustrating reconstruction process.

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo made mistakes that any postconflict administration in Iraq should avoid. It was hampered by the slow deployment of personnel and cumbersome procurement procedures that delayed the establishment of administrative structures. Its personnel were of mixed quality, chosen to reflect the United Nations family rather than their skills. Many internationals held positions (such as heading municipalities and leading government ministries) for which they had no experience or training.

Critical institutions -- such as the police, judiciary, and penal system -- were not operational until several months had passed. There was a law-and-order vacuum that resulted in serious crimes of retribution and revenge against minority populations. Military personnel with the NATO-led military force were not trained to be police officers, judges, or prison guards and didn't respond effectively. Military leaders in Iraq would face the same problems. Lack of transparency has been another weakness, and still is. To build democracy, UNMIK needs to lead by example. Even after three elections established institutions at the local and central levels, key decisions are made by UN officials in a non-transparent manner, without the participation of democratically-elected leaders.

Yet UNMIK has crucial strengths, including the partnership it has developed with the NATO-led peacekeeping force. We at the Crisis Group have proposed a similar structure for Iraq, with a UN-led administration and U.S.-led multinational security force.

In Kosovo, this partnership enabled the United Nations to focus on creating a civilian administration while the 45,000 peacekeeping troops established security. At first, they failed to protect the Serb population from revenge attacks, but they now work effectively with UNMIK; as a result, the crime rate, including ethnic violence, has dropped dramatically.

The UN also joined other international organizations with special expertise to help the reconstruction effort. Four pillars were created under the UN umbrella to lead humanitarian assistance, civil administration, institution-building, and reconstruction efforts. Significantly, UNMIK was also able to bridge the divide between the Americans and Europeans. Remember their differences of opinion over taking military action in Kosovo? Sharing leadership was a way to heal those splits.

Although the UN mission has been rightly criticized for its lack of transparency, it displays a flexibility that a military structure may lack.

The mission, initially, competed with parallel Albanian governance structures. After six months of little progress, the United Nations signed a "co-governing" agreement that shared responsibility for administering Kosovo with local structures, and established a council to oversee this process. When elections were held, this joint administration was replaced by elected officials -- albeit with significant UN oversight and retention of authority in sensitive areas.

So the Bush administration shouldn't be too dismissive of the UN mission in Kosovo. Four years after its establishment, democratic institutions have been created, the government functions, and the security environment has improved. The United Nations has made mistakes, but only a few are a result of its own intrinsic weaknesses. Most were caused by the difficulties of governance in postconflict settings. An army-led administration in Iraq would face similar challenges -- without the UN's tools to overcome them and transform Iraq into a democracy.

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