GETTING relief supplies to needy civilians in the midst of a raging civil war is one of the United Nations' most challenging new roles. From the Sudan and Somalia to Bosnia-Herzegovina, relief personnel and their convoys have had to dodge bullets and sometimes turn back from areas of the most intense fighting.
Few are more familiar with the dangers - or more convinced of the necessity of continuing such aid - than Jan Eliasson, the UN emergency relief coordinator. A former Swedish ambassador to the world body who now serves as UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mr. Eliasson says getting such aid through is vital both to help innocent victims and to serve as a catalyst for UN peacemaking efforts. Providing secure corridors for the delivery of aid can reduce fighting levels and open new paths fo r negotiation, he says.
Eliasson points to Somalia as a "modest" example of the success of what he calls humanitarian diplomacy. He chaired a mid-March conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on relief aid for Somalia that he says was timed to precede a reconciliation meeting on Somalia.
Many of the Somali 190 clan leaders, village elders, representatives of women's groups, and other community leaders invited to the first meeting stayed for the second. One aim of the relief conference was to make it clear that the $130 million in help pledged by donors depended on a safe environment for aid delivery and on positive political steps.
"What the Somalis heard was, `Yes, we are willing to help you, but we also expect security and a process of reconciliation,' " Eliasson says.
In his view, that message and the broad range of participants in the relief conference played key roles in the subsequent agreement on Somali interim government and disarmament reached at the next conference.
The more active UN of the 1990s inevitably runs new risks, Eliasson says. He acknowledges a growing concern over the safety of relief workers and those they help. Protection must vary according to circumstances, he says, and may not be sufficient to do the job alone. Despite 300 UN guards in Iraq, for instance, relief workers aiding the Kurds still encounter security problems.
In tense civil conflicts, Eliasson says, international relief workers often have to work particularly hard to convince all parties of their absolute impartiality. "We have to fight for the respect of humanitarian law," he insists.
One common security threat to humanitarian work that the UN and other agencies can do something about, in his view, are the tens of millions of land mines in combat areas of Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Somalia, and Iraq. Though experts say eliminating such mines will take another 40 to 50 years, Eliasson says the job can be done by the end of the century. Intensive training for military and civilian workers would be required.
In the past, nations assumed that they had a sovereign right to say "no" to humanitarian aid if they wished, the diplomat says. The UN now is trying to balance such nationalist sensitivity with the internationally recognized responsibility of states to take care of victims of emergencies or provide access for such help.
"That means we are negotiating in practically all situations both with the government and with the parties to the conflict about humanitarian corridors," he says. In the case of Sudan, he says relief corridors go in from both Kenya and Uganda.
Somalia, which had no central government and numerous warring factions, was the first case in which the UN Security Council last December invoked chapter 7 of the UN charter to authorize the use of force in support of humanitarian goals. The Security Council increasingly treats hu-manitarian issues as a key ingredient of global security and peace efforts. UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, for instance, are there solely to protect the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The change, Eliasson says, is part of the UN's new recognition that social and economic needs have been relegated to second place for too long. If it is to be effective, humanitarian aid, in his view, must include a study of root economic causes of political crises and long-term rehabilitation and development needs.
"If you ignore root causes," he says, "it's a bit like putting up an umbrella in a hurricane." Eliasson says basic needs such as water, electricity, and education must be considered at an early stage of the help. Most Somali children have not been to school in three years, he says.
The UN is trying to make relief funds go further through consolidated appeals on behalf of all involved UN agencies and by improved coordination in the world body's one-year-old Department of Humanitarian Affairs. A new $50-million Central Emergency Revolving Fund helps the UN to respond more swiftly to aid requests. Crises that hit newspaper headlines draw donations more readily than what Eliasson terms "silent emergencies," such as needs in Afghanistan or in the four former Soviet republics where the U N has active humanitarian programs.
One steady concern, he agrees, is that donor fatigue could set in. Ironically, he says, the end of East-West tensions may have bred "a new indifference" to the plight of the most disadvantaged citizens of the world. "Hopelessness is something we have to fight," he says. Nations must see humanitarian aid as a matter of "enlightened self interest."
In the meantime, Eliasson concedes that the number of humanitarian crises demanding the attention of his thinly staffed office "grows by the week." Serious discussions must be held, he says, on how to raise the needed money and supplies more successfully and do the job more efficiently.
The UN official spent much of the 1980s helping to resolve the war between Iraq and Iran. He was the personal representative of the UN secretary-general in that effort from 1988 to 1991. One of his greatest joys, he says, was finally to witness the release of the more than 60,000 prisoners of war held by Iraq and Iran.
"I realized that what in the end counts in all of this is the effect on human beings," he says. "The whole idea behind organizing ourselves into societies and international organizations is to help individual human beings ... and to be true to humanitarian ideals."