Test of UN's mettle in Africa

Even as Security Council delegates tour central Africa, rebels grab UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sierra Leone was supposed to be an example of the United Nations commitment to Africa. More than 8,000 soldiers in this West African nation represent its largest military presence in the world today. And the UN is trying to beef up its forces to the mandated 11,000.

But that commitment could waver as the fragility of a peace accord signed last July becomes increasingly apparent. This past week some 300 to 500 peacekeepers and UN workers were taken hostage and several soldiers were killed. Over the weekend, conflicting reports of rebels advancing toward Freetown threw the capital into confusion. And now Africa watchers worry that even after the hostages are retrieved and more violence erupts, the world might eventually leave Sierra Leone as it did Somalia seven years ago.

Some diplomats and analysts fear that Sierra Leone could mark the international community's retreat from a continent that has hosted some of the world body's most disastrous involvements.

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In 1993, the US pulled the plug on its and the UN's operations in Somalia after several soldiers were killed.

"Peacekeepers get killed in fighting. We've lost sense of that aspect of military operations," says William Zartman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. According to the West's present approach to peacekeeping, "peacekeepers do not go in unless peace already exists, but I say that's not the [real] world."

Casualties in Sierra Leone may be inevitable, and must be something that the international community accepts and plans for in the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Zartman adds.

Just as the peace accord in Sierra Leone was unravelling, a UN delegation that included Security Council president Richard Holbrooke arrived in Congo to negotiate the deployment of UN blue helmets in this East African country, where troops of more than a half-dozen nations are fighting.

Last week the government of Congo's president, Laurent Kabila, reluctantly signed an agreement guaranteeing free access to certain areas of the country for UN officials. This could pave the way for the Security Council to send a 5,500-strong team into a country that is larger than Western Europe. However, this contingent would be mostly peace monitors rather than peacekeepers.

"The chance for a large peacekeeping force with a broad mandate in Congo is next to zero," says one Western diplomat. "If we can't handle Sierra Leone, how can we handle a country as vast as Congo and with such difficult terrain?"

"Both the Sierra Leone and the Congo operations came out in part from a criticism that there was a double standard on how the international community responds to crises and conflicts in Europe versus Africa," says Salih Booker, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, referring to NATO's involvement in the Balkans. Ambassador Holbrooke "organized the so-called month on Africa ... in part to deflect criticism of a double standard."

The world will find it more difficult to pull out of Sierra Leone and to turn its back on Congo than was the case in Somalia. After the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, the US as well as the UN have issued various mea culpas for failing to prevent or stop the mass killings and have promised not to repeat their mistakes. In fact, the Security Council delegation's trip to the Congo was first announced last month during an open meeting on the Rwanda genocide. Council members now agree that the UN force there was too small, ill-equipped, and lacked a strong enough mandate.

The present crisis in Sierra Leone appears to be dj vu.

"It shows that the number of troops committed in Congo is ludicrous. It shows that we need a more realistic mission," says Zartman, who estimates that a 30,000-strong force could be required. "You have to overwhelm them with numbers."

Logistics presents a major challenge. No Western nation has volunteered any of their nationals for the mission in Sierra Leone, and the UN has had a difficult time pulling together a force. Kenya's Parliament has called for its soldiers' return after four of them were presumed dead last week. And many blue-helmeted soldiers not properly trained were intimidated by the rebels, who gained a reputation for brutality during the civil war. Moreover, promised resources still have not flowed into the mission, especially transportation and equipment.

The biggest problem, however, was the political resolve of the international community, political analysts say.

Under the Lom accord signed last July, amnesty was granted to the rebels, who instituted a campaign of terror and dismemberment during Sierra Leone's war. And some of the rebels, including the leader of the Revolutionary United Front, Foday Sankoh, were given high-level government posts. "It was a flawed agreement," says Zartman.

Diplomats at the UN now discuss setting up a criminal court to try Mr. Sankoh and the rebels for crimes recently committed and not protected by the amnesty.

But arresting Sankoh will not likely stop the violence, says Zartman. "What are his troops going to get out of it [the peace accord]?"

Other analysts argue that the accord itself was not the problem, but rather the lack of political will to implement it. Though it provided amnesty to human rights violators, it was also the only way to bring some sort of peace to Sierra Leone.

"Once Lom was signed, everyone went home. No one stayed to see if every side followed the accord," says Mr. Booker. The RUF has not yet received all of its promised government posts. Moreover, the process of reintegrating rebels into society and reconstruction have not fully taken off. Rebels have not been given enough incentives to disarm themselves, Booker contends.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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