Keeping the Peace in a Fragmented World

JONATHAN POWER

March 06, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

STOCKHOLM. — Stockholm -- The U.N. Security Council has authorized sending a 22,000-member peace-keeping force, the largest in U.N. history, to oversee an end to the Cambodian civil war.

Only a week or so earlier, it decided to send 13,000 peace-keeping soldiers to Yugoslavia. Just before that, it approved sending observers, poll-watchers and peace-keepers to El Salvador.

And on Tuesday this week, Armenia appealed for a sizable U.N. force to intervene in its fast-escalating and sordidly destructive war with Azerbaijan.

The total cost of these operations is estimated to approach $2.5 billion, a lot of money but less than the cost of two ballistic-missile submarines, and peanuts compared with the annual global military expenditure of $900 billion, or the $53 billion cost of the Gulf War.

Yet already contributors are prevaricating about the cost. Russia says it's broke. Half of the Third World nations are in arrears on past operations. So is the U.S. Japan offered to pay for a large chunk of the Cambodian operation, but only if their man was put in charge. He has been. If it weren't for the Nordics, Canadians and Australians who pay up ahead of time, peace-keeping long ago would have bitten the dust.

Before he stepped down at the end of last year, secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar suggested a replenishment ''peace'' fund of $1 billion. There's been talk of an international tax to be imposed on the arms trade to go straight to the U.N.

Better still, every country might take its responsibility seriously, as the Nordic countries do. Not only do they pay up on time, they keep military units on stand-by solely for U.N. use. Sweden and Finland each maintain year-round training centers for the preparation of U.N. forces.

Sweden has put 55,000 soldiers into the world's trouble spots over the last 40 years. At its special training school near Stockholm, surrounded by portable pontoons, field hospitals, helicopters, armored trucks and Hercules long-distance transporter planes, highly motivated soldiers, proficient in English, every one with a civilian skill, exercise all day in the icy wind, an embryo world police force.

The school's commander, Lt. Colonel Christian Harleman, was pointed about the methods he uses to train his men. ''We are not after Rambo soldiers. A war-time soldier has to sneak through rTC the forests, creep up behind the hill, find the enemy and kill. The peace-keeper works in bright daylight, comes up to the top of the hill, shows the U.N. flag and says, 'Here I am.' ''

Sweden relies on conscript soldiers who've finished their service and then volunteer for six months with the U.N. As Colonel Harleman observes, ''We have to change the attitude of our soldiers who have been prepared for war. A peace-keeper, instead of using his weapon, is using his brain.''

In Cyprus, where the U.N. has been keeping the peace between rival Greek and Turkish communities for 27 years, I saw these Swedes at work -- along with Canadians, Danes, Australians, Austrians and British.

The center of the capital, Nicosia, is like the old heart of Berlin, a derelict strip of no-man's-land and empty houses, devastated by the bitter fighting when, 17 years ago, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus with the biggest paratroop drop since World War II to protect Turkish Cypriots.

I stopped at a Canadian-manned observation post, an abandoned house. I skirted a whiskey bottle on the stairs that, the officer with me said, was booby-trapped, and clambered onto the roof. In the Greek Cypriot part of the city are the chaotic concrete symbols of helter-skelter economic growth. On the Turkish side is the elegant somnolence of a besieged economy with its 19th-century stone mansions and tile-roofed magnificence intact. The two worlds no longer touch except to provoke each other.

Without the U.N. troops, the verbal abuse and the spitting across the street would flare into real fights. One officer, who has spent 17 years in the British army, told me that the most terrifying moment in his whole career was when he was pinned down at Nicosia's airport by Turkish paratroopers. The U.N. troops, although underarmed, were prepared to fight to the last man to protect the airport. The fact that they were so obviously determined, and that severe political repercussions would have resulted from an assault, stayed the Turkish hand. These U.N. troops, in short, are a human trip wire, the crossing of which raises the political stakes for any contending force.

At one point, I asked a young British officer if he thought the British troops found the job a strain. ''British?'' he said, un-selfconsciously correcting me. ''We're U.N.'' He was only in the third month of a six-month tour of duty, but already was infused with a spirit that is not picked up casually on the streets of London or Liverpool.

No one would want the whole world run by the U.N. The idea of world government is the ultimate abhorrent bureaucracy. But when the U.N. is brought in to keep the peace and all sides accept it, it's quite amazing what it can do, both to those it seeks to help and those who are sent to work for it.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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