Paris. -- Something important is in confused creation, begun with Iraq, continuing in Yugoslavia. The leading democratic nations have taken it upon themselves to intervene not only against threats to international peace and order, but in cases of humanitarian concern within the frontiers of sovereign states.
The European Community is intervening in Yugoslavia, concerning a matter for which it has no direct or legal responsibility.
The struggle among Slovenes, Croatians and Serbs takes place within a sovereign state that is not even a member of the EC. Nonetheless the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Portugal, acting for the EC, summoned Yugoslavia's and Slovenia's leaders to the Italian island of Brioni and succeeded in obtaining from them a provisional agreement to halt the fighting of the past few days and to resume negotiations on the declared secession of Slovenia and Croatia.
According to the Slovenian participants, the European troika did not conduct themselves as intermediaries or brokers of compromise, but dictated terms. "We found ourselves in a situation to accept or reject," the head of Slovenia's assembly told the press.
The Community threatened not only aid cut-offs if Belgrade failed to cooperate but also summary recognition of Slovenian and Croatian independence if military action against them was resumed.
The agreement, which at this writing remains fragile in the extreme, envisages EC officials inside Yugoslavia to monitor observance and to investigate the status of minorities and the country's internal security and economic affairs.
The EC also caused Serbia to withdraw its veto of the succession of a Croatian, Stipe Mesic, to the rotating federal presidency, and produced at least nominal army deference to federal authority.
The whole arrangement may collapse tomorrow, and the blood-letting resume. What is astounding and important is that the thing was done at all.
The Kurdish intervention has produced a "security zone" with United Nations "policemen" and international aid agencies at work there, protected by a Euro-American military force in Turkey.
This is sullenly tolerated by Iraq but has distinctly shaky standing in existing international law, although it might be interpreted as a consequence and continuation of the U.N.-mandated liberation of Kuwait from Iraq's aggression.
Washington has been reluctant to go along in both these affairs. It was pushed into the Kurdish intervention by pressure from public opinion. It fears the enormous precedents being established, in the Yugoslav case seeming to legitimize the break-up of federal states and encouraging national dissidence inside other countries, and in both affairs overriding established norms of national sovereignty.
The world has just got rid of the Brezhnev Doctrine, which held that the Soviet Union enjoyed a right to disregard conventional sovereignties to extinguish "negative" or "reactionary" movements inside the Warsaw Pact.
Now we are arguing that the democracies have a right to disregard sovereignty to protect national groups inside other countries or to save people from their ancestral hatreds and communal follies.
Washington's is a serious argument. The body of international law which exists today is a hard-won achievement and to disregard it, even in good causes, encourages other governments to disregard or override it in bad causes. That takes us back toward might makes right.
One may respond, however, that states today continue to disregard international law when it suits them, including the United States itself, which defied the judgment of the Hague Court on the Reagan Administration's mining of Nicaraguan harbors, and under Mr. Bush invaded Panama on the flimsiest of legal pretexts. The challenge is to develop existing law while rethinking the question of sovereignty.
The proposition that a "duty" of humanitarian intervention exists in international affairs was proposed in 1987 by people connected with the international medical relief agency, Medecins sans Frontieres, who said that oppressed or starving people deserved foreign help whether the local governments concerned agreed or not.
One of the group's founders, Bernard Kouchner, has also argued that this "duty" to intervene should apply equally in cases such as the Khmer Rouge massacre of Cambodians or the Nazis' genocidal assault upon the Jews.
The anthropologist and writer Michel Peissel has recently proposed an international convention on the "rights of nations," in parallel to the generally acknowledged rights of man, to defend peoples who "through misfortune, accident, injustice, mistake or conquest" happen to fall within the boundaries of a state not their own.
We are at a point when certain conventions of international conduct have fallen as a result of the extraordinary assaults upon civilized behavior that have marked our century. These attacks have been political and totalitarian in recent years, but increasingly are also the result of ignorance or social breakdown.
The African continent already presents a spectacle of suffering beyond the competence of most of its governments to remedy, or which too often is the direct result of the policies or negligence of those governments. Are the democracies to ignore this?
An extraordinary moment has arrived when democratic values have prevailed in the Cold War, and the democracies possess an unprecedented international influence.
With that comes an opportunity to revise the international order so that democratic values may be better observed than in the past. These new ideas of humanitarian intervention and collective peacekeeping, as well as the innovative actions improvised in the Iraq and Yugoslav crises, suggest that we are at the start of an important change.
The obstacles and risks are evident, but it seems clear that the time has arrived to reconsider our concept of sovereignty's rights and limits.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.