Just what will it take to learn our peacekeeping lesson?

Peacekeeping on the cheap is a recipe for failure. Sierra Leone is the latest case in point, as its fragile peace accord unravels unhindered by international peacekeeping efforts.

The resumption of hostilities between government and rebel forces in May - in which rebels took hundreds of UN peacekeepers prisoner - was hardly a surprise. It was clear from the moment the peace agreement was signed last July that the fragile accord would need a strong peacekeeping presence to enforce it.

Why can't the UN handle a peacekeeping operation in a destitute African country smaller than South Carolina? Look in a mirror: The UN peacekeeping system is slow and ineffective; the US and other Security Council members are resistant to any improvements.

The fundamental problem is that the UN has no troops. It has to beg and borrow troops, equipment, transport, and money to mount a peacekeeping force. Big powers, notably the US, are usually chary of pledging more than token support and notoriously tight-fisted in funding peacekeeping operations.

It takes time for the UN Security Council to authorize a peacekeeping operation and even more time to assemble and dispatch a force. When the force finally arrives in the country, it is usually made up of soldiers from many countries. They have different training and equipment and - often - varying instructions from their home governments. What the peacekeeping force amounts to is a hodgepodge.

The experience in Sierra Leone is instructive. The Lom peace agreement was signed in July 1999. But it wasn't until October that the Security Council authorized a peacekeeping force of 6,000. Kenyans - 131 of them - arrived a month later, and others dribbled in. By January, only 4,800 of the 6,000 peacekeepers authorized were in-country. The peacekeeping force was overwhelmed from the beginning. The Security Council played catch-up by approving enlargement of the force to 11,000, then 13,000 in May. Only by June 20 did the troop strength reach nearly the prescribed level.

Deployment isn't the only problem. The peacekeepers in Sierra Leone come from 32 countries. How can an effective force be melded quickly amid such diversity and lack of unit solidarity?

The ragtag rebels of Sierra Leone are unimpressed by this demonstration of international power in their country. Their actions show contempt.

There is a better way. The international community should establish a standing force of soldiers and police to respond quickly to humanitarian emergencies. The force, which might be called a rapid reaction force (RRF), would consist of 5,000 to 10,000 elite volunteers from around the world. They would live and train together, follow the same doctrine, use the same equipment, answer to the same chain of command, and be ready for dispatch on 72 hours notice.

An RRF would give the international community a sharp instrument to project military and police power quickly and effectively. An RRF - or part of it - could be deployed for a multitude of purposes: to prevent or mitigate conflicts, protect noncombatants, supervise ceasefire agreements and police refugee camps.

Several nations and many prestigious individuals have endorsed the concept, but the idea hasn't gone very far because the specter of a so-called "UN Army" sends most US politicians scurrying for their hidy-holes. However, a bill by Reps. James McGovern (D) of Massachusetts and John Porter (R) of Illinois has been introduced in Congress this session supporting the concept of an RRF, and it has attracted 22 co-sponsors.

A rapid reaction force would also be a useful cover for the wary politicians. It has much to recommend itself, especially by reducing the pressure on the US to act unilaterally in humanitarian crisis situations. An RRF, for example, could have handled the intervention in Haiti a few years ago, might have prevented much of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and could be the leading edge for enforcement of the peace in Sierra Leone.

An overhaul of the creaking machinery of international peacekeeping is long overdue. We can throw good money after bad, risk failure over and over, and waste innocent lives by continuing with the present inadequate system. Or we can find a better way of doing things. The creation of a rapid reaction force is an idea whose time has come. An international task force of military and police experts as well as diplomats should take a high-priority look at the concept.

*Larry Thompson is director of advocacy at Refugees International, a refugee advocacy organization.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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