It's been three decades since the first UN peacekeeping in Africa went awry. "This is the craziest operation in history," said UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold in 1960 as he tried to end a war in Congo. The United Nations effort was like giving aid to a rattlesnake. Even Mr. Hammarskjold died in a plane crash while trying to bring about peace.
Now a presumably smarter UN has apparently botched peacekeeping in the West African state of Sierra Leone (see story on page 1). And it will soon send more than 1,000 troops and observers once again to Congo, where seven nations have been in conflict.
In both places, the United Nations rests its hopes on shaky peace pacts with ruthless rebels and ex-rebels, many of whom rely on diamond mines. The pacts rest on good intentions and trust, not force. Is that a mistake? Or just the only choice?
A UN "blue helmet" force is not NATO. Rather, it is largely passive, serving a Security Council where US and European envoys know there is little will in the West to end small wars, but lots of guilt over not preventing previous disasters such as the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the 1995 massacre in Bosnia at Srebrenica.
A weak-willed Security Council has shown it can't end wars, unless it enlists the US or NATO to do so. Even when UN troops face bands of fighters, they usually give up, sometimes betraying civilians who put their trust in the UN, leaving many to perish.
Since Monday, when peace broke down in Sierra Leone, all the UN's peacekeeping flaws have been writ large.
It is short by 3,000 troops. It didn't have enough equipment. Over 250 of its peacekeepers have been captured. Its soldiers fired warning shots over a crowd in the capital, only to see rebel soldiers open fire on the crowd.
Bad as it is, the alternative is worse. Sierra Leone has been through eight years of a brutal civil war. It can't be allowed to resume.
UN chief Kofi Annan, a true statesman, has tried to treat rebel leader Foday Sankoh of the Revolutionary United Front as a statesman. Despite the butchery of his fighters, the peace deal gave Sankoh's men luxury houses, cars, government positions, and immunity from prosecution. It was either too much, or not enough.
Now the UN must revive peace or send in a real force. Much depends on Mr. Annan's skill, the power of peacekeepers from Nigeria, and, as usual, the will of the Security Council.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society