Hard Lessons From the War in the Balkans

A DREAM is dying in Eastern Bosnia along with people, the dream of an invigorated United Nations able to contain and prevent ethnic crises before they erupt into war.

Based on a recent visit to former Yugoslavia, this is written with a sense of anger and regret, but not of blame. It is not meant to disparage the heroic efforts of UN "blue berets" and officials from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who daily risk their lives trying to reach the besieged Muslim pockets. This is dedication of the highest order.

But each new Serbian outrage, in open defiance of international opinion, underlines the UN's impotence. Manipulated by Western governments and unable to respond with force, the UN has no answer to the kind of ethnic hatred that shells wounded civilians, forces fathers to torture sons, neighbor to violate neighbor. This is deeply troubling as new ethnic tensions take root throughout Eastern Europe.

The UN is engaged on two separate fronts in former Yugoslavia. Hundreds of UN soldiers and civilian police are monitoring a tenuous cease-fire between Croatia and Serbia in the largely Serb-controlled buffer zone known as the Kraijina. They also are supposed to supervise the local police and militia and protect the rights of minorities.

Difficult at the best of times, these tasks have been complicated by a Croatian incursion into the Kraijina in January, which infuriated the Serbs and intensified pressure on the remaining Croats. UN officials often face a miserable choice between helping Croats flee or watching them be killed.

Then there is Bosnia, the heart of the conflict. Here the lead had been taken by the office of the UNHCR, which is currently delivering humanitarian aid to 800,000 people displaced by the conflict. UNHCR is also helping another 800,000 who have not left their homes. The hope is that this presence and aid prevents ethnic cleansing. UNHCR officials describe this as "preventive protection."

In the past, such a role would have been reserved for a combination of agencies, including UNICEF and the Red Cross. It is certainly unlike anything ever done by the UNHCR, which was established in 1951 to win asylum for exiles forced to flee their country and is technically not an operational agency.

Many UNHCR officials know they are out on a limb in Bosnia. They know their presence has failed to stop the Serbs gobbling up five villages a day in Eastern Bosnia or to protect the Muslims remaining in western towns such as BanjaLuka and Prijedor, which were "cleansed" last summer.

They also know that their operation in Bosnia is generously funded because European governments hope that UNHCR will contain the crisis in the Balkans and prevent a new wave of asylum seekers from moving north. Europe has driven home the message with a rejection of asylum. The crisis has uprooted 2 million people and left many severely traumatized. They will not be returning to their homes. Britain, France, Belgium, and Holland have together taken in less than 20,000 Bosnian refugees. Croatia, a country of 4 million, has accepted 283,000.

Finally, UNHCR officials also know their convoys are filling a gaping hole in the UN system, which lacks a central humanitarian relief agency.

It is hard to be anything but pessimistic, but let us at least learn some lessons from the wreckage:

* Bosnia, like Somalia, is a reminder that the UN should not intervene in an unfolding humanitarian crisis without the ability to use force. Western generals, however, have backed away from military intervention. This points to a grim conclusion: We are unwilling to give asylum to those who are trapped by war, yet reluctant to intervene on their behalf. In such circumstances, anything done by the UNHCR can be at best a palliative.

* If the international community cannot resolve crises like Bosnia, it must try to anticipate them. There is much talk in UN corridors about "early warning" and "information sharing." The problem: The UN cannot act in concert on the information. Once the danger signs have been identified - and they are blossoming throughout East Europe - the entire system should be thrown into the breach to promote democracy, channel development aid, and provide technical assistance.

* UNHCR convoys have saved many lives in Bosnia, but the agency has been less successful in championing asylum. It is time to return to basics. UNHCR has mounted one of the most efficient relief operations in recent years, but it should not be pressured into assuming this role on a permanent basis. The needs of refugees worldwide would suffer.

* "Preventive protection" by an overstretched UNHCR is no substitute for an effective UN human rights program with a presence in the field and a strong mandate to protect minorities, particularly if it is used by governments to deny asylum. Protecting minorities is the most urgent human rights challenge facing the UN, and it should top the agenda at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June.

* Above all, if the world was unable to stop ethnic cleansing, let it at least remind the perpetrators that there will be no smooth reentry into the family of nations.

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