THE UN-authorized retaliatory air attacks in Somalia last weekend were aimed at restoring United Nations credibility everywhere that the organization's 70,000 peacekeepers are on the job. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali called the action the UN's first attempt at "peace enforcement."
But the bombardment of the weapons and communications centers of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, whose forces are blamed for the June 5 deaths of 23 Pakistani peacekeepers, also demonstrates the difficulty the UN faces in trying to improve its reputation and effectiveness. The wisdom of the attacks and their results will be debated for weeks to come. (Relief officials back away from UN, Page 7.)
UN credibility is on the line as never before in many of the violent civil wars under way around the globe. UN troops have been ordered to protect aid deliveries, confiscate weapons, and monitor cease-fires that often are blatantly disregarded. The size and scope of the job is straining resources. Persuading member nations to contribute troops is becoming more and more difficult. Increasingly, peacekeepers and relief workers face deliberate attacks and harassment from rebellious factions.
Leaders of the Vietnamese-backed government in Cambodia, who are unhappy with recent election results, for instance, want UN forces out of seven provinces in the east so an "autonomous zone" can be created.
In Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a Spanish peacekeeper was killed near Mostar over the weekend, Bosnian Serbs have blocked numerous UN-protected humanitarian aid convoys. Last week troops of the Muslim-led Bosnian Army stopped two armed UN cars and stole machine guns and bulletproof vests at gunpoint.
So far this year, a total of 78 UN peacekeepers have been killed. Nabbing the culprits often is difficult. Court systems are ineffective or nonexistent.
Sir Brian Urquhart, former UN undersecretary-general in charge of peacekeeping and now a Ford Foundation scholar, favors a special international legal tribunal to try those accused of killing UN peacekeepers and relief personnel.
"I think if the world community ... is going to put people out in the field in these situations, it owes them every possible form of protection," he says.
David Caron, a professor of international law at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees. As the UN takes on more responsibilities often reserved for governments in such situations as Cambodia and Somalia, he says, it may find that it needs new tools and more powers.
Frustrated by the increasing problems UN peacekeepers face amid civil wars, Security Council diplomats are stepping up the authority of such troops to use force when peace is threatened.
The problem is that the more aggressive UN stance also carries new risks. Actions the UN may see as neutral often appear one-sided to fighting factions. Also, experts say, involvement that begins with a humanitarian motive often becomes mired in complications.
Take the concept of "safe havens" in Bosnia. The Security Council has recently authorized UN troops to take "necessary" measures, including the use of force, to protect six Muslim cities. Just one year ago, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said the level of fighting in Bosnia was such that no UN peacekeepers should be sent there. And even though a UN force of more than 7,000 troops now performs a variety of tasks in Bosnia, fighting remains as intense as ever.
William Taylor, an international security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, sees an analogy in the UN's increasing involvement in civil wars and the "creeping" involvement of the US in the Vietnam war.
The UN and the US, he says, "should not blindly and incrementally walk into a role that's ill-defined and full of risks." A serious and thorough study of the subject is needed, he says.
When nations, rather than factions, were at war, the efforts of lightly armed UN peacekeepers to keep parties apart that had agreed to cease-fires worked fairly well. But local militias fighting civil wars, Sir Brian says, often are less responsive to world pressure and do not always heed agreements they may have signed.
Arguing this point, some experts say the UN should stay out of civil wars altogether.
"The temptation just to walk away in a situation where no one wants to stop fighting is getting stronger and stronger," notes Hurst Hannum, an expert in international law with Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
"It's only been in the last couple of years that the UN has been thinking about taking this active, aggressive role in going in and essentially forcing settlements. Nobody's been very good at that, and the UN really isn't any better," he says.