Can the UN help resolve Africa conflicts without US?

This week the UN could vote to increase its troops in Sierra Leone to16,000 and to send 5,500 troops to Congo.

This was supposed to be the year that Africa mattered. It started in January, with the UN Security Council observing the Month of Africa.

Then Vice President Al Gore added his voice to the chorus of Africa supporters. There was talk about the "Year of Africa," and even of an "African Century."

But as the year marches on, the world's second-largest continent is being increasingly torn by war.

*The peace pact signed last July in Sierra Leone has unraveled after some 500 United Nations peacekeepers were captured this month.

*Eritrea and Ethiopia, while trying to stave off a looming famine, resumed a bloody trench war.

*The civil war in Angola has not lost any steam 25 years after it started.

*And despite a peace accord signed last year, a half-dozen nations still have troops in Congo, which has been carved up by government and rebel forces.

As the UN tries to resolve these conflicts, the question is: Can it really do much without the muscle of the United States and European Union countries?

The Western powers have repeatedly stated they will not send in their troops to Africa. This has been their official mantra ever since a dead US soldier was dragged through the streets of Somalia in 1993.

So, as the UN considers this week increasing its forces from 13,000 to 16,000 in Sierra Leone and sending 5,500 troops to Congo, it will have to rely on poor countries to contribute manpower.

"If the US isn't involved, then people aren't going to take UN missions seriously," says Pearl Robinson, director of the African studies center at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

The world body cannot even rely on the world's richest nation to give it financial support -let alone troops - to bolster its forces. Though Congress has approved paying up its UN dues, Judd Gregg - chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the State Department - is singlehandedly blocking the US from paying $368 million owed for peacekeeping missions.

"The member states of the council consistently give the Secretariat mandates without the means to implement them," complains a senior UN official. Many troops in the botched Sierra Leone mission lacked basic equipment such as working communications systems and helmets. Sensing this disorganization, the rebel force broke a 10-month-old peace pact.

The situation seemed to improve last Wednesday when rebel leader Foday Sankoh was captured, stripped naked and placed under arrest. But his followers immediately warned that they would step up the fighting if their leader was not released.

So, as the government continues to gather evidence against Mr. Sankoh, who had led a campaign of terror where civilians were raped and had limbs hacked off, it is concurrently considering bringing him back into the coalition government in order to avert a full-fledged war. He had been sentenced to death before, only to be pardoned and given the vice presidency as well as control of the country's lucrative diamond mines as part of last year's Lom peace accord.

"I hope they don't go back to the Lom accord," says Professor Robinson. "After all the damage Sankoh did, Lom gave him a prize: the diamond mines."

With this booty, the RUF has been able to buy arms - while nations like the US turn a blind eye.

The illegal diamond trade has not only helped finance the war in Sierra Leone - but also in Angola.

Angolan rebels have been able to fund their 25-year-old civil war from the gems.

In 1993, the Security Council slapped an arms and fuel embargo on the UNITA rebels. But after two of its planes were downed in Angola in 1999, the UN pulled its forces out of the country. Last March, a Canadian-led UN panel tried to shame governments and traders involved in the illicit Angolan diamond trade by naming names, but wasn't successful in achieving sanctions and punishing the embargo-busters. Instead they created a seven-page resolution that basically said it would consider action at a later time. So, the UN and the world are left scratching their heads about what to do next.

Mindful of the role diamonds played in Angola, some advisers to Secretary-General Kofi Annan now say the mines must be wrestled from rebels in Sierra Leone to cut off their bread-and-butter earnings. And they believe that a different leadership is emerging from the RUF and may be convinced to work within the Lom framework.

"Sankoh has put himself beyond the pale," says British Ambassador to the UN Jeremy Greenstock. "He can't be trusted any longer to keep an agreement. This is a widely shared view within the Secretariat and the Security Council."

But other Africa watchers feel that the RUF should not be given a second chance. The government and the international superpowers like the US "should use this opportunity to level the playing field," says former assistant secretary of state for African affairs Chester Crocker. "It's important for the government to get the upper hand and to deal from a position of strength. It's premature to rush to the bargaining table."

As options are weighed in Sierra Leone, a bloody trench war between Ethiopia and Eritrea escalates. Security council members - led by US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke - already have tried the diplomatic card. Some flew to Asmara and Addis Ababa for an eleventh-hour effort to dissuade Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki from resuming a war that has already claimed at least 50,000 lives in the past two years. But the two leaders were very determined, says Dutch Ambassador Peter van Walsum, and could not be dissuaded.

Two days after the council members left, the world's two poorest nations mobilized their tanks, planes and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight over desert territory with no apparent economic value.

Now an arms embargo against Ethiopia and Eritrea appears to be the only measure available, even though analysts believe it would take years before its effects would become visible. If ever, that is. Economic measures, diplomats say, may carry more leverage, but they cannot be considered for countries who face a looming famine.

And observers say the US should be taking a firmer stand.

The arms embargo was approved last Thursday, but was long overdue, says Mr. Crocker. "We have not been treating either president with toughness," he says, adding that the US should have slapped financial penalties on Ethiopia and Eritrea, such as halting the $1 billion loans.

Africa watchers say that more can be done. "The international community must be more forthcoming in condemning this war. It can kick these countries out of the UN" says George Ayittey, a visiting professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

In nearby Democratic Republic of Congo, the chances for peace look better, Security Council members insist. "The implementation of the Lusaka peace agreement is in better shape now than it was half a year ago," says Mr. van Walsum.

Behind this optimism is an agreement by President Laurent Kabila to allow UN officials access to certain areas of the country, thereby paving the way for the deployment of peacekeepers. The visiting diplomats also extracted an agreement from Rwanda and Uganda to withdraw from Kisangani, Congo's third-largest city.

But political analysts say it is too early for council members to pat themselves on the back. President Kabila, after all, has a record of breaking promises, says Mr. Booker. "The fighting in Congo will never completely stop unless there is a credible democratic process initiated by a national dialogue among the government, rebels, and political activists," says Booker.

"The UN should tie the deployment of troops with the implementation of this national dialogue," he adds.

As diplomats here put a positive spin on Congo, the UN faces the possibility of another humiliating mission. Troops likely will come from the poor countries, even as the US takes the lead in expediting their deployment.

Highly trained troops needn't come from the West, says Mr. Greenstock; they just need to be prepared. But with the US-portion of peacekeeping payments long overdue, UN officials fear that a Congo mission may be a disaster in the making.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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