Why UN can't keep peace

A United nations commission headed by the former foreign minister of Algeria, Lakhdar Brahimi, put out a refreshingly honest report last week on how the UN can do a better job at peacekeeping. Given the level of human suffering in places like Sierra Leone, Kosovo, East Timor, and the Congo, it would be comforting to think the Brahimi report will prompt such changes.

The reality is that probably won't happen because of the UN's organizational culture, the way its members use it, and the nature of today's conflicts.

The UN is both a bureaucracy and an organization of member states. The report admits frankly that the quality of bureaucrats varies widely, and suggests the UN must become an open and responsive meritocracy. This would be a radical break with tradition. A bureaucracy that has protected itself by avoiding oversight or measurements of its performance won't make such basic changes simply because a short-lived commission says it should.

The Brahimi report also stresses that the 188 UN member nations will have to support peacekeeping politically, financially, and operationally more than in the past. The members pursue national interests through the UN, rarely sacrificing those interests to achieve common goals. Take, for instance, the US, without whose full backing, any major improvements in peacekeeping will be difficult. The lack of discussion in the presidential campaign of international issues suggests such concerns won't be high on either party's agenda.

Additionally, greater US financial support is unlikely even though the report assumes the $50 million to $100 million cost of its recommendations will be forthcoming. Congress is not interested in finding new ways to spend more on the UN when we're already hundreds of millions in arrears. The spending debate in Washington is instead concerned with spending billions to construct a limited missile-defense system that does not work to counter a threat that does not exist.

Other countries don't help matters with their view that the UN is a pork barrel of patronage. The report laments that there are only 32 officers in New York trying to lead 28,000 peacekeepers around the world. One reason there are so few is that developing countries complained when developed countries provided officers for free to do such work. The argument was made that such jobs should be distributed on an equitable geographic basis - yet objections aren't raised when developed countries pay 97 percent of the costs of peacekeeping missions that all happen in the developing world.

Operationally, the conundrum is that the countries with the most capable armies are the least likely to contribute troops for peacekeeping, while those with the least capable armies are the most willing. Providing six weeks of training to an army that is poorly equipped, poorly led, rarely paid, and often not even fed won't bring dramatic change.

Another conundrum is that the report clings to the idea that the "bedrock principles of peacekeeping" are to have the consent of the local parties, remain impartial, and use force only in self-defense. It also acknowledges that in today's conflicts, often none of those principles are possible. The report also recognizes that the struggle over local resources like diamonds and the conduct of neighboring countries can make peacekeeping impossible, but it makes no suggestions about how to get those elements under control.

The next real test of whether the UN can learn from its mistakes may be in the Congo, the scene of the UN's first peacekeeping failure in the early 1960s. There are 13,000 peacekeepers in Sierra Leone, the largest current mission, and talk of nearly doubling that number. The Congo has 10 times the population and 32 times the land area of Sierra Leone, and no peace to keep.

The country's unelected president, Laurent Kabila, is only interested in maintaining himself in power. Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, and Uganda, for strategic reasons - or the personal profit of their presidents - all have troops involved. Instead of walking away from this situation or punishing in an effective way those responsible, the UN keeps looking for a chance to plunge 5,000 peacekeepers in attractive light-blue helmets into a truly hopeless situation. Without an agreed political solution - and the parties can't even agree on a venue for discussing one - violence will continue to be the tactic of choice and peacekeepers will be bystanders if not victims.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan is to be congratulated for having the courage to appoint commissions like this one, and the ones that did earlier reports on Bosnia, Rwanda, and the ineffective sanctions on Angola. If the propensity for candor and clear-headed analysis ever spread to the UN bureaucracy and its member states, one could be more optimistic that improvements in peacekeeping would be possible.

*Dennis Jett, who served as US ambassador to Mozambique and Peru, is dean of the International Center at the University of Florida and author of 'Why Peacekeeping Fails' (St. Martin's Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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