Peacekeeping Fatigue Sets In As Risks Rise for UN Troops

Post-cold-war intervention in civil conflicts loses favor

ARE United Nations peacekeepers really up to the challenges they are facing in the mid-1990s?

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, UN troops have been harassed, shot at, and abducted. Just a few weeks ago, Western diplomats considered withdrawing UN troops.

In Somalia blue-helmeted UN forces are scheduled to pull out by late March, and clan warfare is expected to go on.

UN peacekeepers, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988, have long been viewed as the strongest asset of the international body. Now critics wonder if their peacekeeping mission even has a future.

What happened? Experts say that after the initial post-cold-war discovery that the UN could play a more active role in containing conflicts, members began to weigh the deeper question of whether the world body should answer every call for help.

Fast-erupting and violent civil wars have increased the demand for forceful UN intervention. But the use of force to protect aid deliveries and civilians while the war rages on is a new chapter for UN peacekeepers. Previously, lightly armed UN troops entered a conflict only with the consent of all parties. Weapons were to be used only for self-defense.

Most of the recent UN peacekeeping efforts, such as in Somalia, have taken a more assertive military stance, and have not worked well.

Some major UN members are questioning the cost and effectiveness of the new operations. The added risks and a changing view of national self-interest led to a new reluctance to supply troops.

Consider Rwanda. By last spring more than 30 countries had told UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that they could make up to 31,500 troops available to the UN on a standby basis to stop the slaughter in that country. Yet after the Security Council raised the UN troop-authorization level in Rwanda to 5,500 to cope with the worsening civil-war situation, no troops were offered. ``They all said no,'' recalls Sashhi Tharoor, a senior UN peacekeeping official.

France, a nation with strong past colonial ties to Africa, decided to leap into the vacuum and asked the Council's blessing on its plan to send 2,500 French troops in June and July to help restore order and protect fleeing refugees.

Peacekeeping efforts endorsed by the UN but not under its military command are becoming more common. US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright calls this trend an imperfect solution but a flexible and practical one.

The best-known recent example was the US-led coalition force of more than 800,000 that pushed back Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991. But the US also led an effort in Somalia between 1992 and 1994, sandwiched between two UN operations, and is leading the current UN-endorsed effort in Haiti. All are signs of what is sure to become a stronger US trend in light of recent GOP gains in Congress. The Republican ``Contract With America'' vows that no US troops will be put under UN command.

Other nations and regions are similarly embarked on UN-endorsed ventures. These include Commonwealth of Independent States peacekeeping troops (largely Russian, for now) in the former Soviet republic of Georgia; and West African troops, led by Nigeria, in Liberia.

``I do think these kinds of [UN] subcontracts ... are probably the wave of the future, and we might as well recognize it,'' says Thomas Weiss, a peacekeeping expert at Brown University in Providence, R.I. ``Peacekeeping operations are becoming more and more military. The UN is an overdeveloped political animal and an underdeveloped military one.''

``We're still in the middle of the learning curve on peacekeeping,'' agrees Jamsheed Marker, the UN Ambassador from Pakistan. He thinks the ``subcontract'' trend will continue until the UN is ``better organized.'' In his view, Mr. Boutros-Ghali, who has said he doesn't think the UN is equipped to handle large enforcement operations, has little choice.

The advantages of such UN-endorsed peacekeeping operations include added speed and efficiency. Such efforts also could reduce the UN's $4 billion-a-year peacekeeping budget. Members still owe a large share ($1.5 billion) of the 1994 assessment.

These ``subcontract'' ventures often stem from some regional, historic, or economic tie to the area in conflict, critics caution. Though such links (coupled with the UN's blessing of an operation) usually help to sell a proposed venture to the people of a country sending troops, UN officials always have tried hard in the past to avoid assigning peacekeeping troops from nations that might have a vested interest in the area or conflict.

Analysts say the UN, which is often left with the role of mopping up after the end of a ``subcontract'' venture, must be cautious in its approvals and insist on oversight. ``The trick is to hold the subcontractors' feet to the fire ... to make them more accountable,'' says Brown's Dr. Weiss. Currently the UN has observers who are monitoring the operations in Haiti, Georgia, and Liberia.

Lessons from Somalia

Coordination is vital. The UN learned a bitter lesson in Somalia where some US troops stayed on and more arrived after UN peacekeepers came in. When a team of US Rangers launched an aggressive raid in their search for Somali warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, they acted under separate US command without the UN's knowledge. UN troops, directly affected, were seen as having taken sides.

``The attempt to use force seemed to make [UN troops] a party to the conflict rather than a part of the solution,'' says the UN's Mr. Tharoor. The perception hampered the UN troops' ability to do their job, he says.

Even within UN operations, mixed mandates can pose major problems. In Bosnia, for instance, the job of thinly spread UN peacekeepers slowly expanded from providing security for aid convoys to monitoring the no-fly zone over Bosnia (a job largely taken on by NATO) and protection of six Muslim safe areas. Yet the more peacekeepers are asked to use force, as they are to protect the safe areas, the more they sacrifice their neutrality.

``Soldiers should not be asked to be peacekeepers one day and enforcers the next,'' says Edward Luck, a senior analyst with the United Nations Association of the US, a private research organization. ``It made no sense [in Bosnia] to authorize enforcement from the air and passive peacekeeping on the ground - the two just don't mix.''

In Mr. Luck's view, the UN venture in Bosnia amounts to an ``absurd mission,'' largely because it is not backed by a firm and united commitment of UN members. ``There's been this `rush to yes' syndrome in the Security Council,'' he says. ``Everyone assumes the objective is to get resolutions that everyone can agree on ... when really they've just agreed on words rather than on a need for commitment.''

Noting that the Council has passed more than 100 resolutions and presidential statements on Bosnia, he argues that there is often an inverse relationship between the number of Council words on a subject and the success of any mission on the ground. ``The more you have to keep issuing threats and clarifications, the more that indicates that you don't know what you're doing or that what you're doing is inappropriate for the circumstances,'' he says.

No one argues that the UN can take on much more of an enforcement role at this point. In time, the world body could gain the needed muscle, analysts say, if its military structure were built up and the political will existed.

Both the Netherlands and Canada have urged the UN to consider the establishment of a permanent military force. It is an idea most Western countries considered unthinkable as recently as two years ago, says New Zealand Ambassador to the UN Colin Keating.

``I think that's evidence of how far things have come in a fairly short time,'' he says.

Yet even at its current stage of development, the UN can play a valuable role in the gray area between traditional peacekeeping and enforcement, some analysts say.

John Ruggie, dean of Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in New York, says that the issue is a ``political hot potato'' that even has individual governments divided as to its merits. He says the point lies at the heart of France's recent proposal to give UN troops in Bosnia a more forceful role by setting up a protected corridor for relief supplies from the Adriatic to Sarajevo and by stepping up security at the Sarajevo airport.

``If member governments allow it, the UN can sketch out a consistent doctrine for what behavior in the gray area should look like ... in terms of force levels and equipment ... and rules of engagement,'' says Dean Ruggie.

Yet the more force required and the more determined the warring parties to fight on, the more problems the UN has had.

The world body, which currently operates 17 peacekeeping missions, has had its most visible successes in cases where exhaustion has set in and the parties conclude that they have more to gain at the peace table than on the battlefield.

Success stories

In Mozambique, for instance, UN forces managed to demobilize some 90,000 government and rebel troops after a 17-year civil war, and to run and monitor the nation's first openly contested elections. Similarly, after a bitter eight-year war between Iran and Iraq, the two nations allowed the UN to broker an end to that fight and send in a border patrol.

The UN's Tharoor says UN troops can ease the consequences of war but cannot necessarily stop the fighting. He argues that many peacekeepers in Bosnia and Somalia are criticized as if they had been sent out to win a war, a job never included in their UN mandate. In fact in both cases, he argues, lives have been saved. ``Often you're trying to see whether peacekeepers can make a difference between the bad and the worse,'' he says.

``It's really quite remarkable that there would even be an attempt to put the UN in the middle of a place like Bosnia or Somalia,'' agrees the UNA's Luck. ``It's no picnic to be in these places. Much of the humanitarian and peacekeeping work that's been done is really quite heroic ... Yes, the track record is mixed, but isn't that better than having no track record at all? The rest of us are sitting on the sidelines - carping.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Peacekeeping Fatigue Sets In As Risks Rise for UN Troops
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today