Why UN Quit as Fireman To the World's Hot Spots

Burned in Bosnia and elsewhere, UN retreats to aid-giving and peace-patroling.

By any standard, tiny Macedonia sits in a tough neighborhood. When fighting to its north in Bosnia - a fellow former Yugoslav republic - threatened to spill over in late 1992, Macedonia, in effect, called the cops.

The United Nations answered with a 1,000-plus-member preventive deployment force (UNPREDEP), including US troops, to keep the peace.

Macedonia has managed to remain an island of relative calm in the Balkans. UN action there has been widely rated a success. Yet despite continued strife in neighboring Albania, the UN plans to pull out at the end of May.

The retreat marks a major shift at the world body. Reeling from such peacekeeping failures as Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda, the UN is questioning its definition of peacekeeping, and debating its future role in policing global conflicts.

Its logic on Macedonia has not gone unchallenged. "The UNPREDEP presence ... continues to be one of the key stabilizing factors in the region," wrote Macedonian Foreign Minister Ljubomir Frckovski in a recent plea to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to have the UN force remain.

But such appeals are unlikely to carry weight. Macedonia may have represented a fairly easy stint for UN forces. That makes it something of an exception.

More often, modern conflict involves guerrilla fighting among mulitiple factions with murky agendas. And the UN has begun to back away from scenarios that even hint at potential quagmires.

Peacekeeping plans for Zaire and in Sierra Leone, whose recent peace talks broke down after four years of civil war, remain on hold until cease-fires are in place.

"The kind of military engagements that we have seen in recent years is out of the question," says one UN official. "The UN is not prepared to handle any more Bosnias."

In fact, it appears prepared for a broad renovation. "The building of peacekeeping may stand, but it is heavily mortgaged and its foundations are fragile," said UN director of peacekeeping Gen. Bernard Miyet at a special UN conference on peacekeeping earlier this month.

UN officials now want to approach peacekeeping as a last-resort option, focusing its efforts on humanitarian relief - and leaving the rough and tumble to others.

The current 6,000-strong multinational protection force in Albania, for example, is under a three-month Security Council mandate to protect relief work there but is not led by the UN.

"Member states did not want the UN involved," says one UN official of the Albania mission. "The feeling was that the operation involvement was better left to countries themselves."

In fact, many UN officials are pushing for a return to the so-called "classic" peacekeeping missions of the cold-war era. Frequently cited models include Cambodia (1991), where a binding peace agreement allowed the UN to effectively oversee the reconstruction of a state.

The Cyprus mission (1964) and the observer force in northern Lebanon (1978) are also seen as prime examples of patroling, not fixing. But in recent years, the UN has more often found itself under fire - literally.

"The UN began to put peacekeeping where it should not have. It became a military force, essentially, and they were not equipped for that," says Sir Brian Urquhart, who served as head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping from 1960 to 1986.

Still, human rights groups assail the UN for wanting to limit its work to mostly humanitarian missions, rather than sticking to "peace enforcement."

"As an immediate consequence of the current reduced ambition for peacekeeping, one of [our] major challenges is the tendency to use humanitarian assistance as a substitute for political action," Corneleio Sommargua, president of the International Committe of the Red Cross, told the UN earlier this month.

But with US Defense Secretary William Cohen's announcement in March that US foreign policy could "no longer be swayed by humanitarian concerns," even limited humanitarian missions remain at the mercy of unpredictable UN member states.

The toughest critics of recent UN action are in the military. "A major part of the problem is simply that UN forces are not professional soldiers," says Adm. Leighton Smith, the retired former NATO commander in chief for Southern Europe who headed NATO's Bosnia mission from the end of 1995 to mid-1996.

Smith cites the need for "military consultation, from an organization like NATO," and the need to be "more realistic" and to learn to handle military operations.

It is hard to predict what approach will be taken. As Yasushi Akashi, former special envoy to Bosnia and current undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the Monitor: "We did nothing in Bosnia that member states didn't vote us to do."

"And that's what you have to remember," he says. "It is all a matter of what member states want to do."

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