The Blue Berets

April 14, 1992

Every once in a while a United Nations peacekeeping force slips into the news. New missions to Yugoslavia and Cambodia, for example. Or a U.N. soldier gets blown up in South Lebanon. Thirty seconds on the evening news, a few paragraphs and maybe a picture on Page 5. Barring a catastrophe, they will soon become as obscure as the rest of the 11 U.N. peacekeeping forces stationed around the world -- more than 40,000 troops at an annual cost of well over $3 billion.

Some of the missions are supposed to be short-lived, but the record proves otherwise. Two of them are almost as old as the U.N. itself: a small detachment that has been in Jerusalem since 1948 and an equally venerable and much smaller unit that has been futilely monitoring the persistent sniping by Indian and Pakistani troops across the cease-fire line in Kashmir. Another force standing between the ethnic foes in the long-forgotten (except to the Greeks and the Turks) conflict in Cyprus will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year.

The U.N., of course, does not have its own armed forces. Although not mercenaries in the old-fashioned sense, the blue-capped troops are rented from regular armies, usually of neutral nations -- at a cost typically of more than $100 a day per soldier. And at a cost of some 800 of their lives over the years. Occasionally an observer from one of the major powers serves, but rarely substantial units. Fiji, Ghana, Togo, Sierra Leone, the Nordic nations, Canada and South Africa are regular contributors.

Although some of the missions have long outlived their usefulness -- the detachment in Kashmir barely qualifies even as a token now -- most of them are providing a vital service no one else could offer. Cyprus, for example, would have dissolved in bloodshed long ago without the U.N. force. It is hard to visualize the Khmer refugees returning to Cambodia without the projected 22,000 peacekeepers under French command.

Massive armies, actually under U.S. command, fought under the U.N. flag in Korea and Kuwait, but the blue berets are a truly international police force.

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