Time to Take Sides in Zaire?

As the chaos deepens in Zaire, discussion of an international peacekeeping force is intensifying. It has, however, been a frequent refrain of several African states that any such force must be "neutral." While the conspicuous presence of that terminology reflects a resistance to the involvement of an interested party like France, it also highlights a central dilemma of modern peacekeeping: the role of impartiality. If a force is sent into the region, this dilemma will require a coherent response.

Impartiality was a firm principle of the peacekeeping operations run by the UN during the cold war. These generally limited themselves to monitoring cease-fires and facilitating negotiations. Thus, peacekeepers found impartiality to be a tenable, and essential, principle. The end of the cold war and the dispatch of UN troops to areas of ongoing conflict, from Bosnia to Somalia and, perhaps, now to Zaire have brought that principle into question, both on moral and operational levels. In the context of ongoing conflict it is both more difficult to remain impartial and more unclear that impartiality is the correct approach.

The moral dilemma of impartiality became excruciatingly clear in Bosnia, where a UN peacekeeping force (UNPROFOR) attempted to be evenhanded in the conflict between Serb secessionists and Bosnian government forces. With Serb forces almost universally condemned as the aggressors, this approach led to a moral crisis at the UN. The credibility of the world organization reached a nadir at Srebrenica, where peacekeepers stood by passively as Muslim men were led away to slaughter.

Simply put, there is much doubt as to whether impartiality can be a moral approach when there is an identifiable aggressor and victim. At the moment, such a distinction has yet to emerge in Zaire. The Tutsis, victims of a Hutu-led genocide in 1994, have established effective control over much of eastern Zaire and have attacked refugee camps, some of which harbor Hutu war criminals. The moral picture is uncertain at best. But if Bosnia teaches us anything it is that any future international presence will need to be aware of the moral implications of an impartial approach to the conflict.

The difficulties of impartiality exist on the operational level as well. An obsession with appearing evenhanded can hamper the success of an operation. Internationally supervised order will spare the Central Africa region another ghastly bloodletting. But that order might be best achieved, at least initially, by assisting the side most capable of providing it. This was, in essence, what the UN did in the Congo during the early 1960s.

If impartiality can no longer be considered an unquestioned principle in peacekeeping operations, it also cannot be easily discarded. For the consequence of abandoning it can be a state of near-warfare between the UN and the faction or factions opposed to its presence. The UN mission in Somalia reached this stage, and the mission in Bosnia very nearly did so when Serb forces seized peacekeepers as hostages. In both cases, the tension ultimately led to the abandonment of the mission. States that have contributed peacekeepers are rarely willing to see their troops drawn into a war.

The intractability of this dilemma is a central element in the hesitance of Western powers to address today's crisis in Zaire. Yet there is mounting pressure, and the West may be forced into action. It is to be hoped this decision will be taken sooner rather than later, and the issue of impartiality dealt with rather than dodged. The difficulties in modern peacekeeping mean a response must be calculated and thoughtful; they do not remove the imperative for action.

*David L. Bosco served in Bosnia as head of the American Refugee Committee's Sarajevo office.

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