Spreading the UN Much Too Thin

THIS has not been a good year for the United Nations. After taking two (or more) steps forward in the three previous years, to worldwide acclaim, it has now moved one step back - or more. American critics, vocal not only in the Republican camp, may now renew their accusation that the UN is ineffectual, largely irrelevant, and a waste of money.

What is true is that the rising euphoria of 1988-1991, the thrill of release from cold-war deadlock, encouraged the member states to overload the UN. They have cast the UN as fig leaf for their own agendas. Governments ask the organization to take on essentially domestic issues. Others have demanded UN action in order to escape acting themselves. Cambodia, Yugoslavia, and Somalia are striking examples.

Then there is the new, dynamic Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, responding readily to importunings. Latvia wants the UN around when it talks to Russia about ethnic Russians' rights and the withdrawal of Russian troops. Armenia, tragically embroiled with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, wants a UN mediator. Georgia and Tadzhikistan ask the UN to watch and possibly help end civil strife. The Solomon Islands complain to the Security Council about what is really a comic opera "invasion" from Papua N ew Guinea. If Mr. Boutros-Ghali fails to dispatch some special representative, he risks being accused of negligence and blamed for the outcome.

The largest risk is in the biggest engagements, none more than in Cambodia. The UN membership endorsed the worthy idea of restoring this ravaged land. UNTAC (UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia), was to take the country over from the four warring factions, administer it for a year, and then turn it back to the Cambodian people through free elections next May. It is the UN's biggest peacemaking, peacekeeping, and nation-building project to date, with some 20,000 soldiers and civilian personnel, costing about $2 billion.

It now seems clearly on the road to ruin. The communist Khmer Rouge has sabotaged it at every turn, refusing to disarm its troops and continuing armed terror attacks. Its radio propaganda excoriates the UN as a colonialist tool and incites violence against the large Vietnamese ethnic minority. China, the Khmer Rouge's mentor and supplier in times past, gives UNTAC warm lip service. But it is inconceivable that the Khmer Rouge would double-cross Beijing.

More likely, China, reemerging as the dominant power in Southeast Asia, wants the UN or another presence to block Khmer Rouge reassertion of its old control over the region.

Somalia is another case. Boutros-Ghali scolded the Western powers for ignoring the unimaginable misery there while rushing to deal with white, European Yugoslavia. In fact, a nightmarish anarchy grips Somalia. Armed gangs under tinhorn warlords seize the food that a shaken world sends in for the starving people. Heroic efforts by the International Red Cross and other private relief organizations and by UNICEF, the UN children's fund, make little difference. Calls for UN troops to impose order draw no res ponse. No member state will commit its soldiers to someone else's civil war. A Pakistani vanguard of 500 men, sent to Mogadishu, has hardly left its barracks.

AS for Yugoslavia, bestiality of a kind not seen in Europe since the Nazis ran amok, has roused the European community to little more than shrill protest and a dubious embargo. No European country has shown the slightest intention of sending troops to stop the slaughter, nor of enforcing the no-fly order against Serbia. Efforts have concentrated instead on transferring responsibility to the UN, without giving it the mandate, let alone the means to compel peace.

Serb extremists laugh off the resolutions and admonitions flung at them by the UN Security Council, cheerfully promise to cease fire and to ground their aircraft, but continue "ethnic cleansing." Serb gunmen brush off the 15,000-man UN peacekeeping force which has no peace to keep and barely the arms to defend itself. One prominent Englishman is quoted as saying that the Yugoslav problem will solve itself when the parties have rearranged the people and the territories in dispute to their liking.

If the European Community cannot act as a regional monitor, the Africans are no better. The Economic Community of West African States, struggling (with no UN mandate) to stop a savage little civil war in Liberia, now wants UN troops to help. King Hassan of Morocco has welcomed a UN sponsored referendum to solve the West Sahara question - but only if he wins. In Angola rebel UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi accepts the results of a free, UN-monitored election - on condition that he get the majority. As it happe ns, both have received enough US help in the past to stick to their guns, literally.

Only in Iraq is the Security Council's Special Commission effectively doing its job of finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction. And the coalition that won the Gulf war is still protecting the Kurds in the north and the Shiite arabs in the south. But Saddam Hussein remains completely in the saddle.

The UN's potential is undiminished but only the member states can bring it to bear. They can also wreck the UN by demanding too much and pursuing selfish interests.

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