Where's the UN in Liberia?

Scenes of civilians caught in the crossfire of Liberia's civil war this week have put more pressure on President Bush to send in US troops. While such preemptive action would probably save lives, it would also showcase the UN's weakness in acting on internal conflicts, especially in Africa.

Ending wars by force is difficult for the United Nations, whose "blue helmets" are trained mainly to prevent old conflicts from reigniting. Most nations in the UN aren't willing to contribute to an international combat force, and would rather let military powers such as the US or France put their soldiers at risk and bear the costs.

France and Britain, especially, have set a precedent by sending troops into their respective former African colonies when war breaks out. France went into Ivory Coast recently, as Britain did in Sierra Leone. Liberia isn't a former US colony, although its origins - it was settled by former American slaves - give it a special status.

For more than a decade, the US has tried to persuade the UN to support regional armies that would fight on behalf of the international community. The UN's weak support for a Nigeria-led combat force under the Economic Community of West African States has led to a hesitant response by ECOWAS to intervene in Liberia. As a result, pressure builds on Bush, who in turn keeps asking ECOWAS to act first.

Another unresolved problem hinders UN action in Liberia. President Charles Taylor was indicted for war crimes by a UN-sponsored court, but he won't step down unless he's given immunity. The UN needs to resolve the tension between its goal of saving lives in Liberia and its goal of international justice.

Bush's hesitancy to act in a "peace-making" operation not related to terrorism reflects these larger questions hanging over the UN's role. This is a case where the Security Council could have revived its legitimacy after its rupture over the Iraq war.

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