UN Role in Final Call for Airstrikes Could Undermine Its Neutrality

Secretary-general will be directly involved in NATO's decision

THE ball that UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali hit to NATO early this week is at least partly back in the United Nations court.

After scores of civilians were killed in two mortar attacks on Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, last weekend, Mr. Boutros-Ghali asked NATO to authorize airstrikes, at UN request, to deter any further attacks. NATO warned Bosnian Serbs as long ago as last August that it was ready to use airstrikes unless the siege of Sarajevo was stopped.

NATO decided Feb. 9, after considerable debate, to grant the UN chief's request. It told the Bosnian Serbs to move their mortars and other heavy weapons 13 miles from Sarajevo within 10 days or face airstrikes.

A cease-fire agreement between Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government reached a few hours before the NATO ultimatum requires a similar turnover to UN control of heavy weapons in and around the city. Yet many Bosnian cease-fires have failed, and the latest is viewed with considerable skepticism.

If airstrikes prove necessary, Boutros-Ghali is sure to have a major role in the decision. NATO's statement says that any raids would be conducted in ``close coordination'' with him.

``I think [the appeal to NATO] was a fairly shrewd maneuver on his part,'' comments John Ruggie, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. ``He wanted to get the finger pointing away from him and to force the only countries that can take action ... to make a commitment that they were prepared to live up to.... The move has clearly had positive results all around.''

Yet some analysts see risks for both Boutros-Ghali and the UN in any decisionmaking role on the airstrikes. Though he is sure to consult with his commanders on the ground and with Security Council members, he insists the Council's resolution to protect Muslim safe areas already gives him the mandate.

Still, Council members are not as united as they were. Russia opposes airstrikes and has been sending the UN peacekeeping office messages on the subject.

``I don't think the question of ordering member states to use military power in a combat situation is something the secretary-general should be involved in,'' says Edward Luck, president of the United Nations Association of the USA. ``An airstrike could very well be read by the Serbs as basically an act of war and [a sign] that the UN has taken sides.''

The UN chief, in Mr. Luck's view, is well within his job under the UN charter in advising the Council and in all that he does to help organize, coordinate, and mediate problems that come before the UN. But the secretary- general should not have a major role in overseeing the use of military force, Luck says. Neither the UN nor Boutros-Ghali should be a substitute, he says, for inaction and ``dithering'' by UN members seeking to avoid responsibility.

``There's been a lack of will and leadership by all the major players that is really quite pathetic,'' Luck says. ``Member states want someone to blame for their own foreign policy failings, but I don't think it's up to the secretary-general of the UN to volunteer for that role.''

In a major speech earlier this week at Columbia University, Boutros-Ghali alluded to the problem himself. He said nations are reluctant to use force and see little reason for concern unless their own national security is directly threatened. He called the UN an ``indispensable mechanism for human betterment,'' but said the world body ``cannot be expected to protect members from hard decisions.'' While strength without diplomacy is self-defeating, he said, diplomacy without strength is ``fruitless.''

During the last two years the Security Council has made more than 90 pronouncements on the Bosnian conflict in strongly worded resolutions and presidential statements.

NATO has been accused of adopting similarly tough language with little follow-through. Its decision this week could mark a major shift. Yet Bosnian Ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey is not convinced. ``We have to be skeptical,'' he told reporters, ``as to whether there will be a will to carry through on the ultimatum if the Serbs refuse to withdraw.''

No one argues that airstrikes could end the war. Some diplomats say such retaliatory action may expand and prolong the fighting. Others say the current world fixation on Sarajevo may simply spur Bosnian Serbs to move their weapons and concentrate on seizing land elsewhere.

In a letter issued Feb. 9 to Boutros-Ghali, the Security Council, and others, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic complained that for three days Bosnian Serbs have been conducting a fierce offensive in Bihac, another UN safe haven. He said the UN and NATO must act to prevent another catastrophe there.

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