NOW that the Dayton peace agreement has brought political and humanitarian relief to an embittered land, we're again compelled to ask questions that have been asked countless times before. Was it all worth it? Has anything been learned?
Like the genocide at Auschwitz, the indiscriminate bombing of women and children in Guernica, Spain, and Pol Pot's torture center at Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh, Srebrenica has been added to the long string of tragic pearls that hangs around humanity's neck. When the Srebrenica enclave was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces in a spurt of ethnic cleansing, the world failed to understand. Its misunderstanding stemmed from the fact that United Nations troops were supposed to be protecting the area.
As far as the world was concerned, another humanitarian mission had failed, miserably. Protecting noncombatants caught in war zones seemed an impossible task. Yet in recent history, a measure of protection has been afforded to unarmed populations when the flood waters of war have spilled over from well-defined battlefields. It is the International Committee of the Red Cross's contention that, despite the widening scope of what today constitutes a military theater of operations, such protection can happen again.
The first recorded case in the modern era of an initiative wrought to protect noncombatants in situations of conflict occurred during the Spanish Civil War when Gen. Francisco Franco proposed that part of Madrid be set aside as a civilian refuge. The following year, a safety zone was established in the middle of war-torn Shanghai to assist some 250,000 people. Likewise there were and are weapons-free buildings protected under the Red Cross emblem. There also have been cases of entire cities declared ''open'' when one side says it won't oppose its enemy's advance into the area.
Nevertheless, civilians are still caught in crossfires and are still on the receiving end of ''blind'' bombing raids. The question of protecting civilians becomes extremely troublesome when belligerents decide that the annihilation of ethnically diverse communities, for example, is a justifiable war objective. In such instances, ''smart'' weapons systems do not ease the savagery of war motives.
As a result, the international community has realized that if it is to concern itself with the protection of vulnerable groups of people in times of conflict, the practice of establishing ''safe havens'' has to be reappraised. This has induced a shift from the practice of mutual ''humanitarian'' agreements between belligerents (as defined by Article 15 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and as seen in Madrid and Shanghai) to a concept of safe enclaves linked to a conceivable use of force.
The new concept was applied, somewhat empirically, in northern Iraq in 1991, Rwanda in 1994, and the former Yugoslavia. The creation of temporary protective zones authorizing the use of force to counter a threat to international peace and security rested on precise UN resolutions (688, 929, and 824).
Despite the fact that lives were saved by this unsettled mixture of might and humanitarian concern, the track record of such a concept isn't good. In some cases, it is disastrous.
In northern Iraq, from the outset, there was a discrepancy between what the UN Security Council wanted and what was actually established by the implementing powers. Although this fogged-up mandate did meet the most pressing humanitarian needs, the root political problem - a permanent solution to the Kurdish question - remained unresolved. This means the crisis can erupt again at any time. If it does, then the lives, effort, money, and public sentiment that were the backbone of Operation Provide Comfort will have been wasted.
As Operation Restore Hope in Somalia showed in an even more extreme way, introducing humanitarian action at gunpoint, while at the same time failing to address the causes of conflict, means that it is often easier to intervene than it is to stay, and often easier to stay than to leave.
A safe haven based on coercion can't last forever; at some point the ''bad guys'' will return, often with a vengeance. Belligerents, though cowed by a momentary use of force, are still belligerents - with objectives often radically at odds with those of the international community. In such cases, ill-conceived foreign military interventions do more harm than good.
IN Rwanda, the need for forceful intervention was obvious: Terrible massacres had occurred. But the UN failed to introduce a timely measure of protection and was forced to withdraw troops at the most critical moment. The picture of UN troops ''exfiltrating'' European citizens while maddened hordes massacred whole communities is humiliating and painful.
The UN-approved, French-led Operation Turquoise that followed a few months later did save lives, primarily those of Tutsis. But the initiative was controversial since most of the ''beneficiaries'' were seen as linked to the recent genocide.
In both cases, outside intervention left the fundamental task - restoring a viable Rwandan government - untouched. Inside Rwanda, thousands of displaced people were locked in festering pockets of distrust and hate, while outside, some 2 million refugees created huge local resentment at the Lake Kivu camps in Zaire.
And then came Srebrenica. The atrocities perpetrated during the course of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia chilled the post-cold-war euphoria and very nearly provoked the demise of all international will to extinguish human fires. Prior to the Dayton agreement, the ''Yugoslav curse'' threatened to bring down the whole UN edifice. The lowest ebb in the international community's ability to cast itself as a problem-solver came in the wake of Srebrenica and Zepa.
Even if the Dayton agreement holds - as we all hope it will - it can't mask the fact that deep human scars remain, scars caused as much by extreme and cruel war aims as by the international community's failure to adopt timely and necessary measures.
The Srebrenica-Zepa (and for that matter, Gorazde) safe havens rested on a flawed concept. UN Resolutions 819 and 824, which laid the ground rules for these would-be havens, did not stipulate that they be ''demilitarized.'' True, a local agreement to demilitarize Srebrenica was signed, under UN auspices, by Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic and Bosnian Gen. Halilovic, but for unknown reasons it was never implemented. Armed soldiers remained inside the enclave, making it, according to international law, a legitimate military objective - though nothing can justify the atrocities that ensued.
The list of failed good intentions is long and must include the disaster at the Kibeho Rwandan refugee camp last April. In Kibeho, as in Srebrenica, thousands of people were given a false sense of security, and they ultimately paid an unacceptable price for a foreign body's (namely the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda's) inability to complete a task for which it wasn't properly equipped.
That brings us back to the question, Can ''safe areas'' be made to work, and, even assuming that they can, are they the best way to protect civilian populations, given the shape of contemporary conflicts?
Whether they are protected, or whether they are demilitarized, war-free zones have to obey certain laws. First, they must be seen as exceptional mechanisms designed to respond to exceptional circumstances. There is indeed the danger that, apart from being costly and politically delicate to handle, safe areas could lead to a form of protectionist discrimination. In the last analysis, that would mean civilians inside a safe enclave are ''safe,'' while those outside are viewed as ''fair game'' for attack.
Naturally, the International Committee of the Red Cross refuses to accept that any noncombatant can be denied the protection afforded him or her by the Geneva Conventions. I believe that the international community should shun the use of safe havens since they could be perceived as stopgap measures to allay public opinion.
If a decision to set up a safe haven is made, those who introduce it must be prepared to invest all that is necessary to avoid tragic disillusionment. If people are to be protected by foreign armed troops, then they must be protected by these troops. If they will not be protected, then they must not be allowed to believe otherwise.
In the long run, the simple answer is the best one: Combatants must accept the sanctity of civilian populations, period. Without an established culture of respect for individual lives, the world will be condemned to move from one human catastrophe to another.