Costly UN practice: ambiguity

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May 4 was another bad day for the United Nations. The Security Council, alone empowered to preserve peace, once again undermined the UN's credibility as an agency of peace.

The Council issued two statements. One was on the horror unfolding in Sierra Leone, condemning "in the strongest terms" rebel leader Foday Sankoh for killing and capturing UN peacekeepers. "He must," it said, "be held accountable, together with the perpetrators, for their actions." However, the Council and notably its five permanent members, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia, had no intention of stopping - let alone seizing - him.

The second statement, citing reports of an impending new offensive in Afghanistan, held the ruling Taliban responsible. It threatened "further targeted measures" if the Taliban did not cease firing and negotiate. The "targeted measures" were not defined, but they would probably be empty if they were. Half a dozen UN members, including Russia, encourage and supply the opposition Northern Alliance. Meanwhile, several others, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, back the Taliban in pursuing a military victory.

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This discrepancy between strong words and weak marked the 1990s. Rogues and warlords could conclude that they would literally get away with murder.

It started with Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who violated the Security Council's cease-fire terms from the moment they were imposed in April 1991. Striving to rebuild his arsenal of chemical and biological weapons, and obviously still lusting to possess Kuwait, he remains the closest threat to peace in the Middle East. Yet, Russia and France, with large financial stakes in Baghdad, have led a movement to take all pressure off.

And in Somalia, the clan-driven chaos has baffled all efforts to build a peaceful society. Elsewhere in Africa, ringing demands that Eritrea and Ethiopia stop their idiotic war are disregarded.

Meanwhile, Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic made gulling the Security Council a fine art. An arms embargo and the UN Protection Force, established to curb his war for a Greater Serbia, ended up crippling his Bos-

nian and Croatian victims while leaving the Serbs a free hand for years. When the council declared Sarajevo and other battered centers "safe areas," the Serb army overran them, adding the slaughter of some 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica to Mr. Milosevic's ethnic cleansing. After the UN sought to impress him with its feeble bombing raid, he took hundreds of UN peacekeepers hostage to ward off that threat.

The Security Council also created a war- crimes tribunal to punish the war criminals. Milosevic ignored it, and the worst are still at large. He himself was indicted after his genocidal rampage against the Kosovo Albanians last year. But when the Council sent a mission to Kosovo last month to see how the UN was putting the pieces of that broken land together, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors paid Milosevic a courtesy call in Belgrade. After all, the Council, while assuring Kosovo "substantial autonomy," has reaffirmed that it legally remains a province of Serbia - a contradiction that will haunt the UN.

Perhaps the source of the Security Council's confusion lies in its applying old rules of diplomacy in a new world. Time is accelerated and geography has shrunk. There is less room for maneuver. The diplomats' classic way out, creative ambiguity, cannot stand the strains of the new reality.

The upshot is that the United Nations is ridiculed and reviled, blamed for failures into which it has been plunged. The Security Council has a magniloquent habit of overcommitment and then not supplying the financial or human resources to do the job.

Like any association, the United Nations is no better than its members. Too many, including the United States, seem unaware that in letting the UN be misused they are shooting themselves in the foot.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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