PEACE negotiations to settle regional conflicts are fast becoming a ``growth industry,'' says United States Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas R. Pickering. He counts it an encouraging sign. Yet he admits that not that many of the UN's so-called negotiations successes have been capped by final exclamation points. The gains have come in steps. The peace process tends to be ongoing, says the ambassador. Often the UN has helped to broker cease-fires, but the process of getting political settlements drags on.
In an interview in his office across the street from the UN, he singles out conflicts in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, and Namibia as ones in which the UN has helped to achieve ``real progress'' and where prospects for further gains are good. The potential for a positive UN role is also strong, he says, in resolving the conflicts in Central America, Cambodia, and the Western Sahara, which he terms ``further back in the negotiations stage.''
After seven years of UN-mediated talks, the Soviet Union finally agreed last year to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by February. At Soviet bidding, the UN General Assembly on Nov. 1 called for an early start to new peace talks.
Yet the US sees a major roadblock ahead. Mr. Pickering says the right of self-determination should fall to the Afghan majority, which fought to expel the Soviets and seeks a nonaligned, independent state. Leaders of the mujahideen who visited him recently told him they were trying to broaden their base of representation, a move the US welcomes. But he says he has yet to meet anyone in the resistance forces who is willing to accept, as part of any future government, current Afghan President Najibullah.
``We have to respect that,'' he says.``At this point we don't see any negotiations taking place with the regime in Kabul - or at any future point.... In the last analysis we believe it is not a question of power sharing but of power transfer.''
In the Iran-Iraq war, a UN Security Council resolution was instrumental in the negotiations that led to a cease-fire. The UN has an observer force on the scene. But Pickering says the ``very difficult'' issues of what to do about prisoners of war, occupied territory, and navigation rights on the Shatt al Arab waterway must be negotiated before peace is consolidated.
Making sure Namibia's transition from colonialism to full independence moves along on track is ``the kind of work the UN was created for'' and has been an ``almost daily preoccupation'' of the Security Council, says Pickering.
Part of the concern has been to see that the UN presence was adequate to ensure that recent elections of those who will write Namibia's constitution were free and fair and to monitor charges made by both sides. The Security Council more than doubled the number of UN election and police monitors before the election.
Under the accord signed last August in Tela, Honduras, by the five Central American presidents, the UN will monitor the February 25 Nicaraguan elections with the help of the Organization of American States, provide an unarmed peacekeeping force to keep rebels from using another nation's land or arms, and supply a larger armed force to oversee the voluntary demobilization of the contras.
Pickering views the word ``voluntary'' as key. The contras want to stay in place as leverage until after the elections.``We don't believe forced demobilization can bring about a settlement or national reconciliation,'' says the ambassador.
In his view, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's recent suspension of the long-time cease-fire with the contras was an attempt to break his February promise of free elections in exchange for disbanding the contras. ``We have never said the election is a must ... but in a sense it's the proof of the pudding,'' says Pickering.
Although the recent Paris talks on Cambodia reached no settlement, a UN fact-finding force was sent to explore the prospects for sending a peacekeeping force to the region. Pickering says the US views it as crucial that any transitional government put in place before elections are held be broadly representative. Such a move is important to achieving a ```level playing field' before elections,'' he says. ``We hope the Vietnamese will come around to that point of view.''
UN efforts to make and keep peace face myriad roadblocks. Yet the UN has scored a number of recent, widely-applauded successes. UN peacekeeping forces won the 1988 Nobel Peace Prize. The improved climate in US-Soviet relations and Moscow's new enthusiasm for the United Nations and for making it work better are key factors.
Pickering says the number of areas of difference between the US and the Soviets has narrowed. Much of the UN's recent strengthening has come through a change in approach, he says, rather than through ``organizational tinkering.'' He credits the growing trend toward consensus decisions in the Security Council as making a large difference in the UN's progress and the seriousness with which its comments and criticisms are taken: ``The UN speaks most forcefully when able to speak as a cohesion of its members.''
The US is pleased with recent internal UN reforms such as the 12 percent reduction in personnel and the new consensus approach to budgeting. ``We'd like to keep at it,'' says Pickering, who notes that the Soviets look at reform needs much the way the US does and are a ``convenient source of support for us.''
Indeed, US and Soviet UN leaders recently held the first joint press conference either side could remember to pledge a ``new spirit of constructive cooperation'' in pursuit of their many common interests within the international organization. Waxing euphoric, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Petrovsky declared, ``Today is the end of confrontation.'' Pickering, ever the cautious diplomat, said, ``I don't think all problems will disappear... but I hope this will make it easier to cooperate.''