The trouble with being the world's fire brigade

AS the United Nations sends more lightly armed peacekeepers into civil wars to protect civilians and get relief supplies through, the world body is encountering a new set of practical and institutional problems.

With 70,000 peacekeepers deployed in 17 missions around the world (such operations cost an estimated $3.2 billion in 1993), the challenges are mounting:

* The job is getting more complicated and dangerous. Convoys often are pilfered, delayed, or blocked. In the absence of lasting cease-fires, relief workers sometimes are shot at, kidnapped, or killed. In recent months, peacekeepers have been killed at the rate of about one a week.

* Warring factions tend to see the aid as a weapon and UN peacekeepers as partial to one side or the other and in the way. Bosnian Serbs have accused the UN peacekeeping forces, for example, of backing the Bosnian Muslims with firepower and logistical support. As France prepares to send troops to Rwanda under UN approval until a larger contingent of peacekeepers arrives, the rebels have denounced the intervention as an attempt to affect the situation on the ground.

``In classical warfare, the whole purpose of the siege is to starve the people out, so the way we intervene ... is actually changing the dynamics of war rules and behavior,'' says Colin Keating, ambassador to the UN from New Zealand. ``Anything you do is seen as helping one side or the other, so it's going to be dangerous.''

* As the risks and costs have increased, UN-member nations have become more reluctant to offer troops unless they perceive their national interest as directly involved. Only the political pressure of widespread public disgust at the massacres in Rwanda, for instance, forced the UN Security Council in May to reverse an earlier decision and raise troop levels there. But the UN continues to have difficulty coming up with the troops to fill the mandate.

UN peacekeepers will never be any match in numbers for fighting forces in such conflicts. One hope, says UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is that the very presence of UN forces, no matter how limited, can help to keep a war situation from deteriorating further.

Aid agencies and analysts are divided on the need for peacekeeper protection and whether such help should be more forceful. Shellshocked aid workers on the scene usually welcome the help more than their office chiefs back home do.

``I believe that if you have humanitarian assistance in these conflict areas, you must have some kind of military protection,'' says Rita Hauser, board chairwoman of the International Peace Academy. ``[But] before you use force, you have to know why you're using it and under what terms and conditions.''

UN credibility damaged

The UN's frequent lack of success in brokering the passage of aid convoys in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Somalia has damaged UN credibility, diplomats and analysts say. Even having the technical authority to force the aid through appears to make little difference. But more assertive action can make UN troops the targets, and commanders often sense that the collective political will on the Council is not strong enough to support a more aggressive stance.

New Zealand has proposed that attacks against UN peacekeepers and civilian staff become a universal offense, as the world community has done with airline hijacking, now punishable anywhere in the world. The General Assembly expects to take up the proposal soon.

Beyond the practical physical problems faced by UN troops in their new role, some analysts say that deeper structural contradictions among UN agencies and goals also need to be faced.

The new UN role in protecting aid must never become a substitute for failing to take more significant political or military action to resolve the conflict, insists Thomas Weiss, an expert on peacekeeping at Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Some analysts argue, for instance, that it was largely the British and French threat to withdraw their humanitarian peacekeepers in Bosnia that prompted US, Russian, and Western European officials to work more closely on a Bosnian accord and agree on what points of pressure to apply on the warring parties.

Yet one Western diplomat cautions that there is an important difference between pressuring warring factions to settle disputes and imposing a solution. He says most diplomats on the Security Council agree that no peace is durable unless the warring parties choose the terms and willingly sign on. Yet Council diplomats struggle regularly with where the proper UN role lies on the spectrum.

Peter Hansen, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, agrees that relief efforts are no substitute for political action, but says aid efforts must not be politicized. He says the UN is still moving in ``uncharted waters'' in giving aid convoys military protection, and that UN tactics need constant review.

Problems studied

Many of these problems have been under study for the last five years in a special Humanitarianism and War Project conducted by Brown University and the Refugee Policy Project in Washington and funded by dozens of private aid groups and UN agencies.

Though the project still has two or three more years to run, researchers have concluded from in-depth field studies in a wide variety of civil conflicts that (1) UN humanitarian efforts lack a concerted and effective strategy for dealing with obstinate warring parties, and (2) many Council humanitarian efforts amount to ``half measures'' that substitute for tougher political decisions. Aid recipients often told project researchers, for instance, that they knew they were being fed to compensate for the failure of UN member governments to agree on what other steps to take.

``If the international community isn't prepared to address what's producing the conflict that's causing emergency starvation, then humanitarian intervention can actually be counterproductive and fuel, rather than ease, the conflict,'' insists project co-director Larry Minear.

He says UN troops in Somalia, for example, provoked the Somalis and actually contributed to instability rather than restoring it. ``However well-meaning and assertive,'' he says, ``humanitarian initiatives are not really solutions to these complex problems that create suffering.''

Project researchers also conclude that the UN needs to clarify differences in its political, military, and humanitarian functions in order to ease tensions and make UN aid efforts more effective. In its most recent report on the former Yugoslavia, the project cites the apparent contrast between the UN policy of economic sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro and UN-led relief efforts to ease the suffering of civilians there. The same contrast is apparent in Haiti.

``There's a real structural contradiction in trying to do humanitarian programs in a sanctions environment,'' Mr. Minear says. ``We think the contradictions in the UN system need to be better understood.''

The Humanitarianism and War Project recommends that the UN automatically authorize standard humanitarian exemptions to sanctions programs.

Yet one purpose of sanctions is to encourage hard-pressed civilians to pressure their governments to change policies. Refining sanctions, says one European diplomat, can undercut the Security Council's political aims.

The Humanitarianism and War Project stands firmly behind the concept of humanitarian aid for everyone in need.

``The heartbreak and failures in Bosnia and Somalia have made us forget that humanitarian intervention, while not easy, can be done,'' says Brown's Dr. Weiss.

He views UN efforts to help the Kurds in northern Iraq, backed by the allied coalition's threat of airstrikes over the no-fly zone there, as a successful example. ``Military power was used in an appropriate way, and, most importantly, there was an overall political strategy,'' he says.

`Stay the course'

Weiss argues that if the UN decides to intervene on humanitarian grounds in any war, it must be willing to ``stay the course,'' and ``do the job right.'' Noting that the US announced its departure from Somalia even before its troops arrived, he says a key danger lies in assuming that any operation will be a ``quick fix,'' failing to take such often-necessary steps as disarmament and the rebuilding of civil institutions.

Project researchers say more creative diplomacy early on can help to prevent some conflicts, but that tough choices for humanitarian intervention still lie ahead.

``I think there are limits not only to international resources but to international political resolve,'' Minear says. ``One has to develop a much more discriminating array of reactions and responses.''

Mr. Boutros-Ghali agrees that the UN's reactive capacity needs thorough review. Yet he says the changes will have to take place while the UN keeps on trying to prevent and resolve conflicts. It is like flying a plane while redesigning and repairing it, he says.

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