Saving Failed States

How the United Nations let countries fall apart -- and how it needs to adapt if it wants to put them back together. (Originally published in the Winter 1992-1993 issue of Foreign Policy.)


From Haiti in the Western Hemisphere to the remnants of Yugoslavia in Europe, from Somalia, Sudan, and Liberia in Africa to Cambodia in Southeast Asia, a disturbing new phenomenon is emerging: the failed nation-state, utterly incapable of sustaining itself as a member of the international community. Civil strife, government breakdown, and economic privation are creating more and more modem debellatios, the term used in describing the destroyed German state after World War II. As those states descend into violence and anarchy — imperiling their own citizens and threatening their neighbors through refugee flows, political instability, and random warfare — it is becoming clear that something must be done. The massive abuses of human rights — including that most basic of rights, the right to life– are distressing enough, but the need to help those states is made more critical by the evidence that their problems tend to spread. Although alleviating the developing world’s suffering has long been a major task, saving failed states will prove a new — and in many ways different — challenge.

The current collapse has its roots in the vast proliferation of nation-states, especially in Africa and Asia, since the end of World War II. When the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945, it had 50 signatories. Since that time, membership has more than tripled, reflecting the momentous transformation of the pre-war colonial world to a globe composed of independent states. During that period, now nearing its conclusion following the independence of Namibia in 1990, the U.N. and its member states made the "self-determination of peoples" — a right enshrined in the U.N. Charter — a primary goal.

Self-determination, in fact, was given more attention than long-term survivability. All agreed that the new states needed economic assistance, and the U.N. encouraged institutions like the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to help them. But fundamental to the notion of decolonization was the idea that peoples could best govern themselves when free from the shackles, or even the influences, of foreigners. The idea, then, that states could fail — that they could be simply unable to function as independent entities — was anathema to the raison d’être of decolonization and offensive to the notion of self-determination. New states might be poor, it was thought, but they would hold their own by virtue of being independent.

While it lasted, the Cold War prolonged the viability of some of the newly independent and other Third World states. Countries with seriously underdeveloped economies and governments received hefty infusions of aid from their former colonial masters as well as from the two superpowers. The systemic corruption that characterized many of the new states did not stop the superpowers from sending foreign aid as they sought to buttress a potential ally in the Cold War. Thus the Philippines, South Vietnam, Zaire, and post-1977 Somalia profited immensely from U.S. aid, while Afghanistan, Cuba, post-1974 Ethiopia, and several of the front-line African states benefited from Soviet aid. Granted, most of the foreign aid recipients were not wholly dependent on it. Many — most countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for example — have become thriving independent states. But clearly foreign aid was critical in sustaining a number of states, based on their real or imagined strategic significance in the Cold War.

Over time, however, the hurdles faced by some young countries have proven overwhelming, and the assistance cuts that began in the late 1980s brought home the full weight of their shortcomings. In states like Somalia, Sudan, and Zaire, discredited regimes are being challenged by powerful insurgencies. The resulting civil strife is disrupting essential governmental services, destroying food supplies and distribution networks, and bringing economies to a virtual standstill; corrupt and criminal public officials only exacerbate the human misery. In Somalia and Sudan, natural disasters have compounded the suffering, killing large portions of the populations and forcing many others to migrate to already overcrowded urban areas or to refugee centers abroad. In Cambodia, 20 years of conflict have left the country in ruins, littered with land mines, and still suffering from the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rule. Afghanistan’s civil war appears stuck in a stalemate and the country may not be able to hold together. Of course, most states that have suffered economic hardships have not faced governmental collapse. Most governments have been able to muddle through, although they have been heavily burdened by a stagnant standard of living.


Third World countries are not the only ones that could fail. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia over the last two and a half years has created almost 20 new states, most of which have no tradition of statehood or practice in self-government. One hopes that most will succeed, but lack of experience in government, weak civic institutions, limited economic prospects, and ethnic strife will inevitably reduce some to helplessness — a condition in which Bosnia, with its civil war, now finds itself. The world’s changing political, economic, and cultural configurations are testing the unity — and the borders — of many other countries. It is impossible to be certain that the political boundaries created under colonialism will, in the end, prove sustainable.

Thus, there are three groups of states whose survival is threatened: First, there are the failed states like Bosnia, Cambodia, Liberia, and Somalia, a small group whose governmental structures have been overwhelmed by circumstances. Second, there are the failing states like Ethiopia, Georgia, and Zaire, where collapse is not imminent but could occur within several years. And third, there are some newly independent states in the territories formerly known as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, whose viability is difficult to assess. All three groups merit close attention, and all three will require innovative policies.

Traditional Approaches

The international community’s traditional response to states or territories in need of development assistance has fallen into several patterns. For some non-self-governing territories, the U.N. Charter — and the Covenant of the League of Nations before it — created a system of trusteeship under which member states or even the international organization itself was charged with promoting the political, economic, social, cultural, and educational well-being of the inhabitants. The Charter regarded the obligation to advance those interests as a "sacred trust." In a few cases, the United Nations took on a direct role. During 1962 and 1963, for example, at the request of the Netherlands and Indonesia, the United Nations governed Irian Jaya (the western half of the island of New Guinea) during that territory’s brief transition from Dutch to Indonesian rule. Plans for other U.N. administrations, such as a separate legal regime for Jerusalem (envisaged in the 1947 Palestine partition plan) or the U.N. Council for Namibia (created after the termination of South Africa’s League mandate over Namibia), never resulted in effective U.N. control. The Council for Namibia did, however, help lay the groundwork for the Western members of the Security Council to draft an independence plan, which was finally implemented in 1988-89. The Western Sahara may constitute another example of the U.N.’s midwifing the creation of a new state.

For independent states, the world community has employed conventional remedies to promote the political and economic development of people in distress. The grandfather of all postwar programs, the Marshall Plan, provided more than $16 billion, about $114 billion in 1992 dollars, in bilateral economic assistance to the countries of Western Europe, which were so ravaged by war as to constitute failing states. The United States undertook not only to restore the economies of its defeated enemies, but to reorganize the Italian, Japanese, and West German political systems along democratic lines. The result was the restoration of states that have proven to be economically productive, politically stable, and strongly supportive of a peaceful international system.

Since that time, the revived states of Europe, the other countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the former Soviet bloc have contributed large amounts of bilateral aid to the developing world. Donor groups have pooled resources for a particular country and donated humanitarian assistance in response to crises. And the United Nations, through the UNDP and various specialized and technical agencies, has furnished training to officials in developing countries and project funding. The World Bank offers grants and loans for specific projects in developing countries, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) supplies credit on easy terms. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) assists in relief operations, as do the World Food Programme and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).


Unfortunately, those methods have met with scant success in failing states, and they will prove wholly inadequate in those that have collapsed. Western aid cannot reach its intended recipients because of violence, irreconcilable political divisions, or the absence of an economic infrastructure. Somalia provides a dismaying example. An IMF program is not possible where there is in effect no government. Grants of money, uncoordinated technical assistance programs, and occasional visits by humanitarian and relief organizations have not been enough to bring states such as Bosnia and Somalia back from the brink of death. Although international organizations deserve much credit for responding to distress, the emergence of additional failed states suggests the need for a more systematic and intrusive approach.

Recent U.N. activities have begun to reflect that need. In his landmark June 1992 report, An Agenda for Peace, Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali set forth the concept of "post-conflict peace-building" as a new priority for the United Nations. Boutros-Ghali argued forcefully for "action to identify and support structures which will tend to strengthen and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict." To prevent future conflict, the international community must create a new political, economic, and social environment for states riven by war. That would include strengthening governmental institutions, protecting human rights, pursuing bilateral cooperation projects, and encouraging demilitarization. Existing U.N. agencies would provide most of the assistance, requiring member states to increase their financial contributions.

Boutros-Ghali largely sought to base his case for assistance on the responsibility of the United Nations under its Charter to "maintain international peace and security." Certainly the argument is a strong one. The demise of a state is often marked by violence and widespread human rights violations that affect other states. Civil strife, the breakdown of food and health systems, and economic collapse force refugees to flee to adjacent countries. Neighboring states may also be burdened with illicit arms traffic, solidarity activities by related ethnic groups, and armed bands seeking to establish a safe haven. As is evident in the Balkans, there is a tangible risk that such conflicts will spill over into other countries.

The need to safeguard international peace and security has already prompted specific U.N. action aimed, at least partly, at rescuing rifling states through direct involvement in their internal affairs. The massive U.N. plan to restore peace to Cambodia — with civil administration, peacekeeping, and supervised elections — is meant not only to rebuild Cambodia internally, but to eliminate a great source of regional tension in Southeast Asia. In Central America, too, the United Nations has used nation building as a means of preserving the peace. Its close monitoring of elections in Nicaragua and of the democratization programs in El Salvador has shown the U.N.’s willingness to become involved in the domestic affairs of its members in order to preserve international peace and security. Any future U.N. effort in the Balkans — moving from its peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance programs to creating a long-term peace on the ground — will likely be done under the same rubric.

The U.N.’s responsibility for international peace and security is not, however, a sufficient basis for its action to resurrect all failed or failing states. Not all fairing states pose true dangers to the peace. Haiti’s tragedy has been borne by the Haitians themselves, and Liberia’s disintegration only minimally imperils international security, apart from the modest impact of refugee flows from both states on neighbors. In such cases, U.N. members are more reluctant to support multilateral involvement.

That reluctance has both legal and political origins. From a legal standpoint, Article 2(7) of the U.N. Charter states that the organization is not authorized under the Charter to intervene "in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state," except when the Security Council is enforcing its will under Chapter VII (the same part relied upon for sanctions against Iraq, Libya, and Serbia). The United Nations, then, is explicitly not authorized to interfere in purely domestic issues except to support Security Council resolutions, or with the consent of the concerned state.


More important, deeply rooted political obstacles have tended to prevent extensive U.N. direction of a country’s internal matters and even stifled debate about the appropriateness of such involvement. Those barriers stem from the talisman of "sovereignty." That ill-defined and amorphous notion of international law has been used to denote everything from a state’s political independence — its separate existence as a political unit on the world scene — to the more extreme view that all the internal affairs of a state are beyond the scrutiny of the international community. The states that achieved independence after 1945 attach great — almost exaggerated — importance to the concept of sovereignty. Those countries, organized regionally or as the Group of 77 (now numbering over 120 countries), are quick to resist perceived threats to sovereignty — whether as humanitarian assistance or U.N. peacekeeping in civil conflicts such as the one in Bosnia. They view an unqualified doctrine of sovereignty as a protection against the predatory designs of stronger states.

Many states, especially China in recent years, have sought to hide behind "sovereignty" to shield themselves from international criticism of their abysmal human rights records. Their position endures despite the emerging consensus over the past 40 years — codified in the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and numerous U.N. conventions, and institutionalized through the U.N. Human Rights Commission — that human rights are of international concern and that the world community has a right and a duty to promote the basic human dignity of persons in all countries. Sovereignty has been invoked to block international involvement in other issues as well, like pollution, public health, and narcotics.

But the tide is slowly changing, or, as Boutros-Ghali has put it, perhaps the tide was never as far out as some proponents of sovereignty would have it. In his June 1992 report, he observed that "the time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty… has passed; its theory was never matched by reality." He called for "a balance between the needs of good internal governance and the requirements of an ever more interdependent world." That the theory was never matched by reality is well documented, especially in ways that the world community has aided states in distress.

Many economic assistance programs, for example, require the recipient state to undertake policies of a wholly domestic nature. Such "conditionality" is widely accepted, despite the occasional objection from target states. Some conditions relate to the use of the money, such as ensuring that it is spent on a specific project. Others link aid to the recipient’s policies on other matters, such as human rights practices, expropriation policy, or, more recently, democratization efforts. The IMF mandates recipients of credit to enter into detailed agreements that require the country to reform, and perhaps even restructure, its economy. The IMF sets targets for inflation, money supply, and foreign exchange reserves, and the recipient has little choice but to comply if it wants to retain access to IMF credit and bank loans. It is therefore unpersuasive to contend that absolute sovereignty — in the sense of full freedom over domestic policy — is undiminished when countries choose to accept such conditioned international assistance.

Also, humanitarian assistance has often been delivered regardless of whether host governments have given formal assent to all the operations. When the UNHCR is given authority to enter a country to care for refugees, it normally works with the host government to accomplish its purpose. The International Committee for the Red Cross, in exchange for its vow of secrecy, is granted access to persons in prisons and can conduct other humanitarian activities, such as exchanges of prisoners in countries experiencing civil strife. Even when governments have officially denied permission — as in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the past decade — humanitarian entities have deliberately found ways to circumvent official policy. The United Nations itself, in a June 1992 General Assembly resolution on humanitarian involvement, set forth a somewhat remarkable principle governing such efforts. It noted that humanitarian assistance "should  [not "shall"] be provided with the consent of the affected country [not "state" or "government"] and in principle on the basis of an appeal by the affected country" (italics added).


In a similar fashion, the problems of the environment overwhelm traditional concepts of national sovereignty. The effects of desertification, global warming, destruction of the ozone layer, and acid rain know no national boundaries. Solutions to such problems will require international regimes that constrain domestic activities, like the emission of ozone depleting gases.

The long-term acceptance of limitations on absolute sovereignty, the emerging views expressed by the world community regarding the propriety and legality of humanitarian assistance to countries in distress, and member states’ increased willingness to entrust more authority to the U.N. all point to new alternatives for responding to the phenomenon of failed states. The international community should now be prepared to consider a novel, expansive — and desperately needed — effort by the U.N. to undertake nation-saving responsibilities.

United Nations Conservatorship

The conceptual basis for the effort should lie in the idea of conservatorship. In domestic systems when the polity confronts persons who are utterly incapable of functioning on their own, the law often provides some regime whereby the community itself manages the affairs of the victim. Forms of guardianship or trusteeship are a common response to broken families, serious mental or physical illness, or economic destitution. The hapless individual is placed under the responsibility of a trustee or guardian, who is charged to look out for the best interests of that person. In a commercial context, bankruptcy codes accomplish a similar purpose, providing a transitional period under which those unable to conduct business relations are given a second chance at economic viability.

It is time that the United Nations consider such a response to the plight of failed states. The undertaking would flow logically from its historical efforts in non-self-governing territories as well as from the tradition of conditioning aid and credits on certain behavior. Limiting the U.N.’s conservatorship role to the formal Trust Territories (of which only the tiny islands of Palau remain) is much like limiting legal guardianship to minors, or bankruptcy to new companies. Such a qualification stems from an incorrect premise — that only territories not yet fully independent require U.N. protection and oversight — and fails to promote the central Charter values: human rights for all and stability in international relations. The Charter also entrusts the United Nations with achieving "international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights." Conservatorship would fulfill that goal.

The traditional view of sovereignty has so decayed that all should recognize the appropriateness of U.N. measures inside member states to save them from self-destruction.  At the same time, though, the United Nations cannot simply begin to involve itself in the affairs of member states as if they were suddenly part of the trusteeship system. The irreducible minimum of sovereignty requires some form of consent from the host state. Whether that consent must be a formal invitation or simply the absence of opposition would seem to depend upon the circumstances. The only exception to the principle ought to be rare situations involving major violations of human rights or the prospect of regional conflict where warring factions oppose an international presence. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge might well have merited such an extraordinary form of forcible conservatorship, to prevent completion of the "auto-genocide" the Khmer Rouge started. 


Three models for a U.N. guardianship role are suggested here: governance assistance, delegation of governmental authority, and direct U.N. trusteeship. Each builds upon multilateral assistance efforts of the past. Each seeks to seize the moment offered by newly evolving conceptions of sovereignty.

Where the target state still maintains some type of minimal governmental structure — where the state is failing, but not yet failed — the U.N. should provide aid through what is best described as "governance assistance." That alternative assumes the existence of a regime that is both effective to some degree — in that it maintains some control over the instruments of state power — and internationally recognized (even if not democratically chosen). Examples of such states might include Georgia, Zaire, and possibly a handful of other states in Africa and Asia. They have experienced economic breakdown or political unrest but not complete civil destruction. The governance assistance would build upon existing technical assistance programs but be far more expansive. Instead of merely offering advice or training, the U.N. would assign personnel to work directly with governmental officials on the country’s most pressing needs. U.N. personnel would help administer the state, although the final decision-making authority would remain with the government. Conditions for providing such assistance and intervention might include not only economic change, but modification of the political structure and process where those have a bearing on the health of the state.

The technical training of the sort now funded by the UNDP would of course continue. But because the goal of conservatorship is to enable the state to get on its feet again, the aid should be directed at those sectors least equipped to respond to the country’s needs, whether they be law enforcement, the military, transportation, or health services. The United Nations should also foster democratic institutions and help build elements of a civil society. Thus, it might help draft a constitution, organize free elections, or encourage NGOs that are working to strengthen civic institutions, including political parties and judicial systems. NGOs have performed such functions in Eastern Europe and in the states of the former Soviet Union. Obviously, the U.N. will have an even more delicate task when the incumbent government is corrupt; the line between reforming it and undermining it may be thin, and close coordination with nongovernmental actors will be needed to ensure that the overall interests of the country are paramount.

For those states that have already failed, a second, more intrusive form of conservatorship would be appropriate. Here, the state could actually delegate certain governmental functions to the U.N. That process is already underway, at least in theory, in Cambodia, which clearly qualifies as a failed state: Twenty years of civil war, invasions, outside arms supplies, gross violations of human rights, massive dislocations of its population, and destruction of its infrastructure have rendered the country incapable of governing itself. When peace efforts aimed at a reconciliation of four warring factions met with no success, the five permanent members of the Security Council developed a formula, ultimately endorsed by those factions, for a U.N. operation: the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). It exercises oversight over the country until the elections. The unparalleled authority given to the U.N. includes aspects of civil administration. It controls five ministries, supervises others, has access to all documents, can issue binding directives, and may replace personnel, all to create a neutral environment for elections.


UNTAC’s broad powers are fully consistent with Cambodia’s status as an independent state because its authority was delegated to it by the warring factions. The Cambodians agreed to create a Supreme National Council (SNC), composed of representatives of the four factions and acting as the "unique… source of authority" and embodiment of Cambodian sovereignty. Under the 1991 Paris Agreements, the SNC delegated to the United Nations all the authority needed to ensure that the accords would be successfully implemented. However, the United Nations must follow the instructions of the SNC when that body adopts positions unanimously or when Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the country’s hereditary monarch and the president of the SNC, chooses to speak on its behalf and its views are consistent, in the U.N.’s opinion, with the agreements. That arrangement ensures that Cambodia retains its "sovereignty." At the same time, the U.N.’s role certainly means that Cambodia lacks full freedom to manage its internal affairs.

Whether the reality of the Cambodia experience will match the promise of the Paris Agreements remains to be seen, but the "Cambodia model" has the advantage that it is fully consistent with the Charter while allowing for an extensive U.N. role. It also preserves a modicum of authority for local elites by requiring the U.N. to consider fully their advice when they can all agree. Moreover, if the country actually has a government of some kind that can delegate authority, the conservatorship need not create anything like a Supreme National Council. The Cambodian precedent may well represent the limit to which the international community is willing to consider guardianship for member states. It may also prove the best model for solving Bosnia’s woes. If a committee authoritatively representing Croats, Muslims, and Serbs — and their militias — could agree to delegate certain functions to the U.N., pending elections, then there might be a way through Bosnia’s seemingly intractable ethnic conflict.

Finally, there is the most radical option: direct U.N. trusteeship. Such a plan would resurrect the old trusteeship system and apply it to failed states. For now, though, the U.N. Charter would preclude that kind of trusteeship: Under Articles 77 and 78, the International Trusteeship system applies only to former League mandates, territories captured during World War II, and other areas placed under trusteeship by their administering states. It does "not apply to territories which have become Members of the United Nations."

Those limitations reflect the colonial situation and priorities of U.N. members at the close of the Second World War. Many areas under League mandates needed a similar status under the new United Nations and newly occupied lands might require a transition to independence. In 1945, the relatively few independent states were generally well-established, if not always wealthy, members of the international community; their failure seemed inconceivable. Moreover, creating a trusteeship out of a member state would have been viewed as inconsistent with the premise that the U.N. was to be based upon "the principle of the sovereign equality of all Members," and that it would not interfere in their internal affairs.

Today, however, if the forces in a country cannot agree upon the basic components of a political settlement — such as free and fair elections — and accept administration by an impartial outside authority pending elections, then the U.N. Charter should provide a mechanism for direct international trusteeship. Although no state should be the unwilling object of a U.N. trusteeship, states could voluntarily relinquish control over their internal and external affairs for a defined period. The trusteeship plan would go further than the Cambodia model; local authorities would turn over power to the United Nations and follow its orders, rather than retaining a veto.

In general, the United Nations would act as the administering authority, although a group of states might also perform that function, such as the European Community with respect to Bosnia. In any case, the U.N. and the affected state would negotiate a trusteeship agreement, which would contain the essential elements upon which the state authorities could agree. Because creating trusteeships would require amending the U.N. Charter, the obstacles should not be underestimated. Objections to amending the Charter are well known, and a successful amendment process would no doubt require a carefully constructed political consensus.


Any of the three types of conservatorship outlined above — and especially formal trusteeships —  are bound to bring objections. Placing member states, many would argue, under intrusive U.N. supervision would undermine basic notions of sovereignty and violate the "sovereign equality" of members enshrined in Article 2(1). On a more practical level, the U.N. has never itself administered a territory, except for the brief experience in Irian Jaya; administering trusteeships may prove beyond its capacity and will certainly prove costly.

Those arguments are not decisive. Sovereignty, even as touted by many developing states, is consistent with the idea of conservatorships because the purpose of conservatorship is to enable the state to resume responsibility for itself. Failed states are self-governing only in the narrowest sense. Though not under the control of a colonial power, they hardly govern themselves. It seems appropriate to modernize and reorient U.N. programs to cover the "newly non-self-governing territories." The entire Cambodia operation, for example, is organized toward permitting the Cambodian people to exercise their self-determination, the same goal the Charter posits for the trusteeship system.  Thus, U.N. assistance — whether in the form of intrusive oversight or outright trusteeship — furthers sovereignty in the long run. Moreover, notions of sovereignty are changing. The world community’s responsibility to promote human rights in failed states suggests that the old notions of sovereignty should not block conservatorships. Such arrangements would advance popular sovereignty in the long run.

Finally, with respect to the U.N.’s lack of experience, its supervision of Namibian independence and conduct of ever more complex peacekeeping functions in Central America and the former Yugoslavia bode well for its ability to adapt to the more complex demands of conservatorship. The results of the Cambodia operation will also prove important. Clearly, though, performing those conservatorship tasks will require significant new resources.

Practical Considerations

Any conception of conservatorship will also require some limiting principles and organized procedures. First, conservatorships must not become another form of wealth transfer from developed to developing states — a "watering trough" for poorer countries. States in difficult economic straits, but with functioning political and economic institutions, should not qualify for U.N. conservatorship. They should be directed to the usual institutions for providing foreign assistance. The U.N. will have to develop criteria for determining when a state is near failure based on sustained political, economic, and human rights distress. Perhaps a state could, in effect, declare bankruptcy and ask for one of the above forms of expanded relief, involving varying degrees of relinquishment of authority to the United Nations. The standards need not prove difficult to apply; states would be reluctant to surrender so much authority to the U.N. unless their situation were nearly hopeless. Of course, resource constraints are certain to limit to a handful the number of states that could be accommodated at any one time.


Second, an organ of the United Nations will have to be assigned overall responsibility for conservatorships, including the power to initiate and terminate them. Existing U.N. organs fall short of what may be needed. The General Assembly is too large and unwieldy for effective oversight, especially when urgent action is needed. The Economic and Social Council, with its 54 members, is also too large. The Trusteeship Council might suffice, although it would require a Charter amendment to reconstitute its functions. Currently, the Security Council is the most efficient organ available, and it could probably handle the political and peacekeeping elements of conservatorship, but it has little experience with economic and social matters. The Security Council could establish a subgroup — not all of whose members need be on the council to oversee each conservatorship on the basis of a resolution adopted by the council and a budget approved by the General Assembly. Thus, the Security Council might set up a board of trustees for Somalia by resolution, specifying the terms of the plan, and appoint five countries (perhaps three from Africa on the recommendation of the Africa Group) as members. That procedure would be consistent with the precedent set by the General Assembly in creating the U.N. Council for Namibia, which originally had only 11 members.

Third, the U.N. Secretariat would need to develop a management facility. A central agency of the United Nations would administer and coordinate the conservatorship and provide relief. Some of those functions now belong m the Under-Secretary-General for Peace-keeping Operations; others lie with the Under-Secretary- General for Humanitarian Affairs; and still others are assumed by specialized and technical U.N. agencies. The central bureau within the Secretariat could commandeer the expertise and resources of the U.N. system, much as the secretary-general’s special representative for Cambodia, Ambassador Yasushi Akashi of Japan, is given that authority in the Cambodia operation.

Fourth, conservatorships should not devolve into long-term custody. If a program fails to show serious progress after, for example, three years, then the Security Council or General Assembly should reassess the state’s political viability. It is even conceivable that a better solution might be a referendum by the citizens of the state on partition or union with a neighbor.

Lastly, no discussion of an expanded U.N. role can take place without serious attention to the financial aspects. The Cambodia operation, the closest case to U.N. management of a sovereign state, is expected to cost more than $1.6 billion during its two-year duration. For a country greater in population (Cambodia has only 7.8 million people), the resources will necessarily be larger, depending on the kinds of civilian and peacekeeping activities required. Few countries are likely to suffer worse devastation than Cambodia. That means sizable new contributions from member states at a time when many, especially the United States, are turning to domestic priorities. But the long-term costs of ignoring failed states — in human misery, economic terms, and political instability — are enormous compared to the up-front expenses of a U.N. rescue operation.

Failing states promise to become a familiar facet of international life. They will necessarily exact heavy tolls on their own people and on all countries. Even if the international community were to continue its current ad hoc approach, it would find itself facing mounting costs-for peacekeeping troops, humanitarian aid, and coping with refugees. The real challenge to U.N. members is to address the problem directly, by creating a conceptual and juridical basis for dealing with failed states as a special category, and by forming institutions to succor them. The international community needs a cost-effective way to respond to growing national instability and human misery. Properly conceived, managed, and funded, a regime of conservatorship could be the answer.

This article was originally published in the Winter 1992-1993 issue of Foreign Policy with the following attribution: "Gerald B. Helman, retired from the Foreign Service, was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and deputy to the under-secretary of state for political affairs. Steven R. Ratner is an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he is on leave from the State Department's Office of the Legal Adviser. The views are the authors' own and do not represent those of the U.S. government."
Steven R. Ratner is professor of law at the University of Michigan.

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