THE United Nations Security Council is edging toward approval of the use of military force to deliver humanitarian aid to war victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Council members say they are aware of the risks involved. They want to pin down as many specifics of the operation in advance as they can. They also want to keep the heat on for a political solution to the strife. A UN vote on the resolutions was scheduled for Aug. 12, but was not certain to be held. The European Community Conference on Yugoslavia will be held in Brussels Aug. 13, but no formal political talks are scheduled until later this month.
As many UN members see it, UN credibility is on the line. Tales of atrocities from refugees on the run and televised pictures of malnourished prisoners in mass-detention camps have put tremendous pressure on UN member governments to act speedily on the question of providing armed escorts for relief convoys.
A second Council resolution demands free access by the International Committee of the Red Cross and others to all camps in Bosnia and humane treatment for all detained. An emergency session of the UN Human Rights Commission is scheduled for Aug. 13 and 14 to weigh allegations of torture and murder in the camps.
The Bush administration, which requested the Geneva session, took the lead in trying to get an open-ended Council resolution authorizing use of "all necessary means" to get aid through, a measure like the one passed before the Gulf war last year.
Britain and France agreed to join the United States in pressing for the tougher action Aug. 10. While the Council's 12 other members are still debating issues, the three have asked NATO experts to develop contingency plans for a multinational aid protection force.
France, long in the forefront of relief efforts in Bosnia and a troop contributor to the UN Protection Force there, at first favored giving UN peacekeepers added arms for the escort job.
UN peacekeeping officials, however, have described the task of clearing land corridors for humanitarian deliveries and keeping them free of ambushes and land mines as a major military operation that would require thousands of troops. No UN member has volunteered ground troops.
One of the toughest challenges for the UN in nationalist conflicts is to protect its neutrality.
Bosnian Muslims, for instance, have accused UN peacekeepers of siding with the Serbs. Many Muslims assumed the UN troops came to stop the war.
Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic terms the new UN armed relief effort a long overdue step forward.
Bosnia's ambassador to the UN, Muhamed Sacirbey, says the UN resolution does not address such basic problems as stopping the Serb policy of "ethnic cleansing," Serb aggression, and arms inequities. Bosnia wants the UN to lift its arms embargo that covers all former Yugoslav republics to provide poorly armed Muslims with weapons to defend themselves.
The Serbs, however, have warned they would view any military intervention in Bosnia as aimed at helping that government. Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic said this week that Western military intervention could trigger a "full scale" guerrilla war, a "second Vietnam." And diplomats say they are concerned that lightly armed UN peacekeepers in Bosnia could come under attack by Serbian forces if they are not pulled out before armed escorts are sent.
The UN Security Council would commit a "grave error" either by enlarging the task of UN peacekeepers to include armed escort service or by authorizing use of national or multinational troops in Bosnia, says Indar Jit Rikhye, an adviser on UN affairs at the US Institute of Peace.
"The UN could be pulled into this battle which it is not capable of handling," he warns. "The Western powers want to overextend the ability of the UN which they have deliberately kept weak."
If the UN does authorize force to protect relief convoys, the Council should be clear about its objectives, says Janusz Bugajski, a fellow in East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"In helping with humanitarian relief you could come under a lot of fire from hostile forces and then you have to make a decision," says Mr. Bugajski. "Do you continue or do you withdraw? If you withdraw, it sends a message [to Serb forces] that they can do whatever they want. If you escalate, then you begin to draw ground troops in."
Just back from a recent visit to Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania, he describes Bosnia as in a "reign of terror." Many lightly armed Bosnian troops are up against artillery and sometimes MiG jets.
"It's really no contest," Bugajski says. "Unlike the Kuwaitis, the Bosnians are prepared to fight. They simply want the means to do it."
Mr. Rikhye, who has been a military adviser to two UN secretary-generals and has spent 30 years in UN peacekeeping, favors lifting the arms embargo for all former republics except Serbia and Montenegro.
Dr. Radmila Milentijevic, a minister in the government of Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic, says efforts to get a cease-fire "are worth trying again and again until we succeed."