Book Review: Regional Maintenance of Peace and Security under International Law: The Distorted Mirrors

By Reviewed by Mabel González Bustelo - 20 November 2014

Regional Maintenance of Peace and Security under International Law: The Distorted Mirrors, by Dace Winther. London / New York: Routledge, 2014. 264 pp, $140 hardcover 978-0-415-85499-3, $135 e-book 978-0-203-79735-8

The role of regional organizations adds a new mid-level layer in the hybrid global system of the governance of peace and security. The ‘soft’ regionalism embedded in Chapter VIII of the UN Charter was reactivated mainly after the end of the Cold War, and regional organizations became a tool for UN operations of peacekeeping and peace-enforcement in a context of proliferating crises, increased demands, and overwhelmed capacities. Most regions updated their mechanisms to deal with peace and security affairs and/or created new ones. The scope of potential operations widened and new concepts were applied, raising legal issues with regard to the use of force.

What action is appropriate and legal for regional institutions in the maintenance of peace and security? What are the scope and limits and how have they evolved? This book addresses these questions through a review of the legal documents and practice of selected regional organizations. The aim is a comparative analysis of eight regions to illuminate how they deal with crisis management in institutional and legal terms, and how their documents and practice adapt to – or challenge – the universal regulations of the UN.

Dace Winther, who worked as a legal advisor for the Latvian Ministry of Defence, devotes attention to some of the most controversial issues in international crisis management: the concept of humanitarian intervention (including the reformulation of it under the “Responsibility to Protect”), and forms of regional robust peacekeeping without a UN mandate. The results show a kaleidoscope of approaches that make generalizations elusive.

The first two Chapters deal with the historical development of regionalism and universalism in peace and security governance and its legal foundations, particularly with relation to the League of Nations and the UN. Regional organizations share a common problem with the UN: the increased overlapping of concepts and the confusion between traditional peacekeeping and peace-enforcement, particularly when the former includes a mandate to use force beyond self-defence and is deployed in situations of civil war. The trend to outsource peace enforcement operations (notably to ‘coalitions of the willing’) further blurs distinctions. The doctrinal development of regionalism does not provide solutions, as the result is that “today, the UN calls both for input into more rapid response capabilities and for more subordination from the regional organizations. How the individual organizations interpret and tackle these requests is left up to the good-will of each one of them” (p.48).

Regional organizations and their members have different approaches and conceptions about what is acceptable and legal in international relations, based on their cultural and political traditions as well as strategic concerns. Although each region has been allowed to pursue its specific view to the limit set by international law, this means that the system lacks a common framework for cooperation and the relations of regional organizations with the UN remain complementary but also competitive.

Chapters 3 to 8 deal with the regions and main organizations. For Africa these are ECOWAS, SADC and the African Union. The Constitutive Act of the AU provides for a multilevel coordination of peace and security efforts with the UN and sub-regional organizations, and a pro-interventionist approach expressed in article 4c. The author suggests that this region has been encouraged to take a proactive stand as a result of the overload of African issues at the UN, particularly internal conflicts that attract a great part of UNSC Resolutions for any given year: for 2009, 21 out of 47. The panorama from Africa is characterized by a connection between economic issues and security, a pro-interventionist approach allowing military force, and an overall lack of financial resources and capabilities.

Multilateralism to deal with peace and security is a new phenomenon in Asia. This region is the strongest proponent of non-interventionism and non-use of force in the world and perceives those discourses and actions as tools to impose Western values and extend dominance. There is no overarching Asian security organization but security arrangements exist within ASEAN and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). With few UN Resolutions and no international involvement in most internal conflicts, Asia does not make forces collectively available to the UN, has no common military or peacekeeping force or collective self-defence arrangements, and shows strict compliance with non-intervention.

The early existence of regional mechanisms for collective self-defence and the US role determine the particular history of American security institutions. The chapter on this deals with the Organization of American States (OAS) and the new South American Union of Nations (UNASUR). The role of the UN has been limited here (despite peace operations in Central America and now Haiti) but US unilateral interventions have been common. Therefore, reluctance towards intervention is deeply rooted (be it humanitarian or pro-democracy), although there is a proactive approach to the peaceful settlement of disputes. The new OAS Concept of 2008 pays attention to new multidimensional threats (including violence and non-traditional conflict linked to illegal drugs) that are outside the realm of international law.

The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) show very limited involvement in peace and security in the Middle East. Conflicts in this region are generally dealt with by the United Nations Security Council and external intervention. There is an inability to cooperate in regional mechanisms and a shortage of initiatives and practice. Winther mentions the dimension of the conflicts, fragmentation and organizational overlapping as potential reasons behind the reliance on the universal mechanism, stating – somewhat provocatively – that “the inability to act collectively within the region has itself contributed to the interventions by out-of-region States and organizations” (p.143).

The Russian role in its sphere of influence is suggested to be similar to that of the US in the Americas. Here the central organization is CIS, and the military alliance CSTO created within it, with an emphasis on cooperation on collective security and defence, now expanded to non-traditional threats such as Islamic terrorism and drug trafficking. Russia plays an openly hegemonic role and there is support for robust regional peacekeeping and regional self-defence against outside enemies.

Not surprisingly, one of the most contentious doctrines is applied by the Euro-Atlantic region, where the EU and NATO are studied. Two keywords define the issue – values, and global, according to Winther: “The Euro-Atlantic organizations appear to view global crisis management as their legitimate mission” (p.165). An emphasis on non-traditional threats emanating from outside the region has led to a political acceptance of humanitarian intervention even without a UN mandate. Although the author reminds us that there is no legal right behind it, one of the most controversial assertions in the volume is found here: “Perhaps the central concern of legalising the right to humanitarian intervention as a Euro-Atlantic regional norm is not the potential breach of a jus cogens norm, but rather that the norm may be accepted by other regions as well, and thus increase the general extent of regional use of force without a UN mandate” (p.204).

The comparative analysis shows the difficulty of finding a common denominator, with non-legal factors heavily influencing the norms and practice of each region. Historical and cultural factors matter, as well as the Westphalian power system embedded in the UN universal system. Apart from cultural acceptability, perceptions of threats and capabilities also add to the equation.

This good wide-ranging book is relevant for students and academics in international law, international relations and security studies, and the structure allows a case-by-case approach by readers, as each region can be dealt with on its own.

However, I would like to finalize with two brief critiques. The first is somehow stylistic, as the author sometimes falls into a mixture of descriptive, legal and normative approaches that makes it difficult to elucidate which level of analysis is being applied. Similarly, inferences of global relevance placed into the particular chapters might contribute to confusion. On a different level, the work would have benefitted from a discussion of new and emerging powers such as India or Brazil, among others, and their positions on regionalism in relation with their emerging international role in matters of peace and security.


Mabel González Bustelo is a journalist, researcher and international consultant, specializing in peace and security, with a focus on non-state actors in world politics, organized violence, conflict and peacebuilding. She is also a contributing analyst to Wikistrat.

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