THE alarm went off on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down and the first reports of widespread carnage flooded in. Instead of sending international forces to stop the killing, the United Nations troops on the scene were pulled out. Two genocidal months, 300,000 deaths, and half a million refugees later, the United States agreed to a UN force of 5,500 troops from seven African countries. With luck, it may arrive in late summer or early fall. In desperation, France has deployed a force of 2,500 (including its Foreign Legion) despite being perceived by Rwandans as partisan. It is far too late for the dead and dying.
``We can do better,'' as President Clinton likes to say about domestic policy, and the world must do better in fighting conflagrations like Rwanda. Under current UN procedures, once a new operation is approved, the secretariat starts from a zero base of resources. The secretary-general must constantly beg member states for the means to implement Security Council resolutions. The answer: a volunteer UN ``fire brigade'' - a quick-response force to stop a low-intensity conflict before it rages out of control.
What kind of a force makes sense? A standard regimental-size combat team with five key features: 1) a standing force; 2) staffed by personnel who volunteered for UN service; 3) detached from member states and national chains of command; 4) equipped with on-hand ``interoperable'' equipment; and 5) led by a unified command reporting to an enhanced military staff at UN headquarters.
Such a ``fire brigade'' would be deployed by airlift immediately upon Security Council authorization without the delay of assembling national contributions. It being a truly international force, no parliament would need to debate why its soldiers would be fighting machete-wielding Rwandans or Haitian thugs.
Such an integrated brigade would become well-disciplined, elite Ranger-like units, training together for ``robust peacekeeping,'' thus minimizing field confusion over training and doctrine. New equipment would not need to be contracted for in each new mission because the brigade would maintain donated materiel (from the world's vast surpluses) in pre-stocked regional depots. UN operational orders would not be checkmated by national authorities and language proficiency requirements would eliminate field miscues. Soldiers, like civil servants, would be paid by the UN, while on three-to-five-year leaves of absence from their own national service.
What would the brigade's mission be? It would not be a ``UN Army'' for Chapter VII military enforcement - a proposition many oppose. Large-scale Persian Gulf-type actions require ad-hoc coalitions. This nucleus brigade would be for short-term deployment in situations that do not require high-tech weaponry. Its goals would be to establish an early UN presence, to protect safe-haven boundaries, and to demonstrate Security Council resolve. The brigade would be used only with a political consensus, in the Security Council and broadly within the region, and when its task would be manageable with the small numbers involved.
Because the brigade might come under concerted attack, the Security Council would have to take steps to ensure that appropriate backup forces were available. But the brigade's principal goal would be to prevent outbreaks of fighting and buy time for the deployment of a larger traditional peacekeeping operation.
What are the obstacles and what would it cost? As with all current peacekeeping efforts, the UN lacks an adequate UN military command with communications and logistic staff - a problem the Clinton administration has taken steps to address. As for cost, in 1992 we used Pentagon data to calculate annual costs of under $400 million for a more-ambitious ``UN Legion.'' If this brigade were to be stationed at a base scheduled for closing, and use surplus equipment, a 5,000-strong force might cost only $200 million a year - a bargain compared with the costs of relief and reconstruction, let alone of a quarter-million human lives!
A volunteer force is not a new idea. The UN's first secretary-general, Trygve Lie, former diplomats (like Sir Brian Urquhart), and the majority of a recent congressional commission on improving the UN have recommended a multinational force. US-UN policy was tragically set back by the exaggerated backlash over US casualties in Somalia. While geared to sensible reforms and sounder criteria, current US policy has added doubt and delay to that inherent in UN procedures.
The US is not to blame for the current outbreak of ethnic anarchy. Nor should it take on every crisis. But it does share the blame for the apathy and ``donor fatigue'' that hobbles the UN. Dealing with destabilizing, low-intensity conflict is difficult but necessary. It is time to seriously consider a volunteer UN ``fire brigade'' to help contain the blaze of localized conflict. Then, when the alarm bells ring, someone will be there to answer the calls. For they will surely continue to sound. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.