Beyond good offices? The role of regional organizations in conflict resolution.

Author:Yen Nguyen, Thi Hai
Position:Regional Perspectives

"Both ASEAN and the OAS were active, flexible and effective in the peace processes in Cambodia and Haiti. Although the UN Security Council and major powers made the final settlement for both conflicts, the contributions of the two organizations were remarkable and make the case for a greater role for regional organizations in conflict prevention and resolution."

The proliferation of conflicts in many parts of the developing world and the overload of UN duties have prompted many to advocate a larger role for regional organizations in maintaining world peace and security. After all, regional organizations have a legal stake in conflict resolution and peacekeeping operations. Article 52 of the UN Charter states that local disputes should be settled regionally before referral to the United Nations and that resolution via the Security Council remains an option if regional efforts fail. (1) In addition, Article 53 of the Charter makes clear that the Security Council can utilize regional arrangements and agencies to enforce and maintain peace and security under its authority.

A brief analysis reveals, however, that regional organizations hardly fulfilled this legal role during the Cold War. Almost all conflicts during this period proliferated with the encouragement and contribution of either the United States or the Soviet Union, making each conflict the proxy confrontation of the two superpowers in a third venue. (2) Accordingly, the superpowers seldom promoted a role for regional organizations in conflict resolution. Moreover, as conflicts during the Cold War often took place between a regional organization's members, disputants were reluctant to use the organizations to resolve their conflicts for fear of other members' partiality. Consequently, regional organizations played only a marginal role, their efforts limited to making available their good offices to disputants. It is not an exaggeration to say that the United Nations enjoyed near-monopoly power in conflict settlement through mediation, peacekeeping or forceful military intervention. (3)

With the end of the Cold War, international relations were no longer based on the polarizing confrontation between two superpowers, giving regional organizations an opportunity to take a leading role in conflict resolution. Regional organizations participated in conflict resolution independently and in cooperation with the United Nations as the normative expectations of the international community increased and superpower intervention in regional conflicts decreased. (4) The most notable cases include the contribution of the Organization of American States (OAS) to the settlement of conflicts in Haiti and Nicaragua and between El Salvador and Honduras; the Organization for African Unity (OAU) in Burundi, Liberia, Somalia and Sierra Leone; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Cambodia; and NATO in the former Yugoslavia. The role of regional organizations in conflict settlement also went beyond simply providing disputants with good offices. ASEAN not only facilitated negotiations, it also acted as a third-party mediator; the OAS intervened in member states to protect human rights and restore democracy, while the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) undertook new responsibilities in preventing and settling regional conflicts. (5) Moreover, NATO, the OAU, the OAS and ECOWAS teamed up with the United Nations in joint peacekeeping, while NATO and the Western European Union acted under UN authorization in the former Yugoslavia from 1993 to 1996.

Among the above cases, ASEAN and the OAS were widely assessed as active and effective in resolving the conflicts in Cambodia and Haiti, respectively. Geographic proximity to the conflicts giving them strong incentives to re-establish peace and security in their regions, both ASEAN and the OAS intervened actively to help resolve them. The differences in the two organizations' sizes and capabilities and the varying nature and scope of each conflict led ASEAN and the OAS to choose different methods of conflict resolution. Yet each achieved its objective: self-determination for the Cambodian people through free and fair elections and the restoration of democracy in Haiti.

A comparative analysis of these two important cases provides insight into how regional organizations can contribute to the maintenance of world peace and security. Certain conditions are needed for regional organizations to be more effective in conflict resolution. An examination of the efforts and achievements of ASEAN and the OAS in settling the Cambodian and Haitian conflicts permits the formulation of recommendations on the future role of regional organizations.


Four conditions are needed for regional organizations to play an active and effective role in conflict resolution: legitimacy, enforcement power, resources and cooperation with the United Nations and major powers.


In conflict resolution, legitimacy means international recognition. Actions and behaviors of a third party intervening to resolve a conflict must be in accordance with the UN Charter, international law and norms, and diplomatic conventions. The charter encourages the role of regional arrangements and regional agencies in local conflict settlement. (6) However, the charter, along with international law and the charters of many regional organizations, prohibits intervention in other countries' affairs, dictating that the use of force, including economic sanctions, is illegitimate except for self-defense. (7)

The condition of legitimacy can be met if regional organizations have the mandate of the Security Council. According to the UN Charter, the Security Council has the sole authority to decide whether a situation requires intervention and whether coercive measures are necessary to maintain peace and security. (8) However, the decisionmaking process in the Security Council is often lengthy, given the veto power of its permanent members and their different perspectives on the role of regional organizations in conflict resolution. Thus, it is difficult for regional organizations to obtain the mandate they need to intervene and resolve intrastate conflicts in the early stages.

Enforcement Power

The second condition refers to an organization's ability to carry out its peace plans and to impose its decisions and will on the disputants. This may involve the use of coercive diplomacy methods such as embargoes, sanctions and blockades to isolate and weaken disputants. Enforcement power is needed throughout the process of conflict resolution to persuade disputants to compromise and cooperate in the initial stages and to ensure that parties comply with agreements and their responsibilities once the fighting has ended.

Unfortunately, it is rare for regional organizations to possess this capability. The United Nations supports the use of force by regional agencies or individual states acting under the auspices of regional arrangements only to the extent that the agencies serve as instruments of the Security Council. In addition, as regional organizations are often led by a dominant or hegemonic power, small members fear that decisions of major member states may hurt their interests. As a result, in most existing regional organizations, decisions either are made by consensus or are not binding upon member states. These contingencies clearly undermine a regional organization's enforcement capability, especially when it attempts to resolve conflicts where one or both of the disputants are not member states.


A regional organization that intervenes to resolve an intrastate conflict must often sponsor the peace process or bear most of the costs. Initially, resources are required for shuttle diplomacy and good offices. Once a political settlement is achieved, money and personnel are needed to carry out the peace agreement, facilitate and monitor elections and disarm the warring factions. In addition, large budgetary outlays are required for famine relief, to accommodate and repatriate refugees and to cover the costs of reconstruction and reconciliation programs. These efforts consume significant time and resources.


The final condition for effective regional action concerns the importance of cooperating closely with the United Nations and major powers. Experience during the Cold War shows that without major-power support, regional organizations play only a marginal role in conflict resolution. Although most regional organizations are willing, able and motivated to participate in conflict resolution, they are often constrained by the small size of their member states, the non-inclusive nature of their membership and the partiality of their coverage. (9) Cooperation with the United Nations and the major powers expands their available resources, helps legitimize their actions and strengthens their enforcement power and credibility. In addition, parties to a conflict often prefer the involvement of the United Nations or a major power because they have the material resources and the influence to help resolve their dispute. Thus, it is imperative for regional organizations to maintain close cooperation with major powers to increase leverage against the disputants, gain access to supplementary resources and give added weight to enforcement power.

Although legitimacy, enforcement, resources and cooperation are essential for active and effective...

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