U.N. Peacekeeping is Coming Adrift

JONATHAN POWER

April 16, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- The South African clock ticks ever louder toward its midnight call -- almost exactly a year hence -- when the votes are counted and the country's first multiracial government takes power. But murder and mayhem may yet rend the peace negotiations into fragments and stop the clock.

Already there is talk of the need for U.N. peacekeepers. But South Africans should know that, unless something quite radical is done about the over-stretching and under-funding of U.N. peacekeeping operations, their chances of being rescued from their rapid descent into chaos are practically non-existent.

In neighboring Angola, U.N. peacekeepers, after successfully monitoring a general election meant to finally end a long civil war, have been beaten into retreat. The defeated presidential candidate, Jonas Savimbi, has reignited the fighting and the U.N. peacekeepers, too thin on the ground, were helpless before the whirlwind.

In Mozambique, another South African-bequeathed civil war, U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to be brought in large numbers to police the new peace accords, in an effort to avoid Angola's mistakes. But Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali is complaining that member states have failed to commit sufficient troops to guarantee the peace plan.

In Somalia, U.N. peacekeepers, taking over from American GIs, face the daunting task of putting back together a country that has no semblance of government or prospects of semblance.

In Liberia, for want of U.N. interest, West African states have attempted to pacify the civil war. But, inexperienced in the subtle art of peacekeeping, they have become partisans of one side and have acted with such coarse brutality that they have become counterproductive. Yet Mr. Boutros-Ghali refuses to put Liberia on the U.N. agenda.

It is one problem too many, as is Zaire, which threatens at any moment to revert once again to the sort of uncontrolled civil war that seized the country in the 1960s, claiming the life of then-U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjold. So is Rwanda, where France is begging New York to replace its soldiers with the ''blue helmets.''

This is only Africa. The U.N. has even greater burdens in Europe and Asia.

In Cambodia, next month's elections are supposed to bring to a final close the most deadly civil war in 20th-century history. They are in grave danger of coming unstuck as the Khmers Rouges, who make the Serbs look civilized, show yet again they have no time for the U.N. peace plan.

In Australia and Japan, the two most important participants in the Cambodian operation, senior politicians are publicly talking about withdrawal. In truth, the already massive operation needs to double or triple its manpower if it is to stand any chance of completing its task.

In Kuwait, the secretary-general can find no takers for the mechanized infantry battalion needed to police the Iraq-Kuwait border.

In the ex-Soviet Union the fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan cries out for peacekeepers. So does the situation in Georgia, where out-of-control elements of the Russian military are in danger of turning local civil wars into head-on conflicts with Moscow itself. And this perhaps is only the beginning.

As for ex-Yugoslavia, it becomes clearer by the day that the Vance-Owen plan, intelligent though it is, is turning into a cruel hoax. Neither America nor western Europe is prepared to send the 100,000 or more troops under the U.N. flag that would be necessary to police it and make sure it sticks.

The fault in all this is well distributed -- the old superpowers who do not offer sizable numbers of their troops to U.N. peacekeeping, the big Third World powers with large, underemployed armies -- India, China and Indonesia -- who could do so much more, public opinion and the press everywhere that is undereducated and unprepared to push for its own country to give U.N. peacekeeping priority over traditional defense and the money to go with it.

Peace could be at hand. U.N. peacekeeping, before it became overburdened the last two years, has had many marvelous successes. But an engine of this sophistication cannot run on the smell of an oily rag. When will we be ready to do what we have to do?

Jonathan Power writes a regular column on Third World issues.

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