Frustrated Americans Misunderstand UN Role in Bosnia

WHATEVER the outcome of the present impasse in Bosnia, one of the victims will be the United Nations.

The authority and prestige of the international organization are at an all-time low. In the eyes of the world community, its ``peacekeepers'' have been unable to stop aggression in the former Yugoslavia. Such a conclusion is particularly tragic since it is based on a lack of understanding of the precise role of the UN protection force (UNPROFOR) and of the inadequate support of member nations for that role.

Those appointed to do the UN's work operate under resolutions of the UN Security Council and the direction of the secretary-general. Much of the dismay and frustration registered by observers, especially in the United States, arises from expectations that those serving the UN will perform tasks - such as war fighting or resisting aggression - never contemplated in Security Council mandates.

At the outset of the Bosnian war, the Council accepted two responsibilities: to try to mediate the conflict and to facilitate relief for war victims. Mediation was to be undertaken in cooperation with the European Union. Former US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was the first UN mediator; he was later succeeded by Thorvald Stoltenberg. Lord David Owen has represented the EU throughout.

Facilitating relief was to be the task of UNPROFOR. To this were subsequently added the creation of six safe havens, monitoring the no-flight zone, and securing heavy weapons. It has been the presence of this force in Bosnia that has resulted in the greatest misunderstandings. Despite the term ``peacekeepers'' and its military composition, UNPROFOR was never mandated to enforce a peace.

Moreover, such a force can only operate successfully with the consent of the warring parties. In the chaotic situation in the former Yugoslavia, not only has it been impossible to get the consent of the parties on a continuing basis, but the parties have harassed and humiliated both the relief agencies and their protectors.

Concentration on the relief mission frequently has brought UN authorities on the ground into direct conflict with the objectives of others. When UNPROFOR commander Sir Michael Rose refuses offers of NATO airstrikes because he believes such strikes will not only endanger his forces but make the delivery of supplies more difficult, he is accused of appeasement. That accusation fails to appreciate how many lives have been saved as the result of UNPROFOR protection. Many key relief agencies make clear they can only continue to operate if the UN forces stay.

The frustration of the UN mission with the world response is heightened by the international community's failure to provide sufficient resources. When the Council decided that safe havens should be established, UN military specialists estimated that 30,000 troops would be required. The most that Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali could muster from member countries was 7,000. UNPROFOR's inability fully to protect the safe haven in Bihac arises in large measure from inadequate support.

Politicians and pundits in the US have been loudest in their denunciation of the UN role. Of the troops of the 17 nations that make up the UN force, those of Britain and France have been the focus of the greatest criticism. Such criticism, ignoring the unwillingness of the US to provide troops to UNPROFOR, fails to appreciate the limited nature of the UN mandate. (It is ironic that the US is prepared to provide troops to extricate UNPROFOR, but not to assist it.)

The Bosnian war has reemphasized the basic lack of enthusiasm for the UN on both sides of the political aisle in the US. This lack of support, already marked by arrearages in dues and refusal to place US troops under UN command, will be further emphasized in a Republican-dominated Congress.

When the UN's most-powerful member fails to understand its mandate or to support its mission, it is little wonder that the UN role is marked by frustration and failure.

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