U.N. Can't Always Save a Country from Itself

JONATHAN POWER

January 29, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- When the United Nations finally pulled its troops out of the Congo in June 1964, Secretary General U Thant reported ''The U.N. cannot permanently protect the Congo, or any other country, from internal tensions and disturbances created by its own organic growth toward unity and nationhood.''

It is a salutary reminder of the limits of the U.N. Expectation is now in danger of being piled on expectation. Deeply immersed in providing relief and truce monitoring in the former Yugoslavia, the U.N. is being pressed, if the Geneva peace talks break down, to authorize NATO to bomb Serbian positions. In Cambodia, where an even larger U.N. peace-keeping operation is attempting to prepare the country for elections, there is talk of the U.N. troops confronting the murderous Khmers Rouges if they go on refusing to cooperate.

But as the U.N. takes on more and more -- it has undertaken in the last four years as many peace-keeping interventions as it started in the previous 40 -- the dangers of overload are becoming all too apparent. Moreover, peace-keeping is one thing, fighting a war is another.

As Dag Hammarskjold, the secretary general who lost his life in the Congo operation, once said, ''The U.N. was put on earth, not to get us to heaven, but to save us from hell.''

The U.N. did bring peace to the Congo in the sense that it ended a civil war fought over the secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga and provided an alternative to what was in danger of becoming a competitive East-West grab for influence that threatened to turn the Congo into a major Cold War battleground. It succeeded because the disorganized, drunken, pot-smoking Congolese troops and their gung-ho European mercenary back-up were relatively easily put in their places by a well-trained U.N. force.

But it also revealed the tensions implicit in peace-keeping operations. Many of the soldiers, from Swedes to Indians to Ethiopians, wanted to use force. The Swedes, at one point, even took off to start bombing in retaliation for the murder of an Italian airman, only to be thwarted by bad weather.) But their U.N. peace-keeping masters, the American Ralph Bunche and his British deputy, Brian Urquhart, gradually persuaded them of the virtue of restraint.

Urquhart later wrote in his autobiography, ''They simply did not want to understand either the principle involved or the bottomless morass into which they would sink if they descended from the high ground of a non-violent international peace-keeping force. . . . The moment the U.N. starts killing people it becomes part of the conflict it is supposed to be controlling, and therefore part of the problem. It loses the one quality which distinguishes it from, and sets it above, the people it is dealing with.''

This remarkable U.N. ethos worked for most of the time in the Congo although the secession was finally ended when U Thant, in response to a series of attacks on U.N. soldiers, authorized military action to remove the mercenaries and gendarmes who guarded the secessionist stronghold in Katanga. There was a dose of impatient pragmatism here. Once confronted by the highly professional Indian U.N. soldiers it took only a couple of days to send them running.

One sees the U.N. tradition of self-restraint at its best in ex-Yugoslavia today. British U.N. troops who are guarding relief convoys with sophisticated tanks, drive through mountain passes with the mortar shells bouncing off their armor plating, yet refuse to open up with what would be a quite lethal and devastating onslaught.

Nevertheless, peace-keeping only stays the course if the diplomacy is clearing the road ahead. It was U.N. diplomacy by Urquhart and others that gradually drew the sting of the Congolese civil war (but not before Urquhart himself was seized and beaten unconscious). It was Cyrus Vance, the former U.S. Secretary of State and the U.N.'s chief negotiator, who engineered the Croatian truce that was broken this week. And it will be Mr. Vance and his European Community colleague, David Owen, who stand the most chance of banging heads together in Bosnia.

Even if successful in Geneva, the U.N. cannot solve every problem in Yugoslavia, any more than 30 years ago it could have forestalled the Mobutu dictatorship which has ruled for most of the time since the U.N.'s departure from the Congo (now re-named Zaire).

In any peace negotiation today Serbian gains are not going to be totally rolled back. But at least the Serbs won't go any further forward, they may give up some ground, and peace will open the door for more rational discussion at a later day when present hatreds are perhaps more under control.

To rush to the point of exasperation and demand that the U.N. unleash NATO warplanes on the Serbs, who unlike the Congolese would probably stand their ground and fight back, is to walk into the trap of believing that human malevolence can ever be more than tempered. It is the same in Cambodia. The Khmers Rouges cannot be fought. Perhaps they can be partly ignored by partitioning the country.

U Thant's words, as befits probably the wisest of the U.N.'s secretary generals, still have the ring of truth and, if we're clever, we should read them again.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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