Unscrambling the Bosnian Egg

June 02, 1995|By JONATHAN POWER

GENEVA — Geneva. -- Let us not forget why the United Nations went into Bosnia. It was not to fight the Serbs, but to provide, first, relief and second, wherever possible, however local the achievement, help in keeping the peace.

In the beginning, it was to open Sarajevo airport for humanitarian deliveries. Next, it was to guard the relief convoys of the U.N.'s High Commission for Refugees. Then it was to protect the threatened Muslim enclaves. Then to help Sarajevo return to a more normal life after Gen. Sir Michael Rose, then the U.N. force commander, persuaded the Serbs to put into U.N. storage their heavy guns located on the surrounding hills.

All along, the United Nations was not there to engage the Serbs or anyone else in combat. Any success, such as the opening of Sarajevo airport or the silencing of the big guns, had to be won by negotiation, not by bombardment.

Hawks with short memories, a disproportionate number of them in Washington, momentarily got their way last week with the NATO bombing. Now, one hopes, they have received their come-uppance.

If not, then God help us. For if Washington, Paris and London now decide to up the ante, there can be no doubt that the Yugoslav army of Serbian President Slobodan Milosovic will not hesitate to enter a war against NATO and the Bosnian government. Then we would end up with a quite terrible, long drawn-out war, potentially involving more American ground troops than were deployed against Saddam Hussein.

It is time to unscramble this egg. U.N. peace-keeping has become confused with peace-enforcement. They are two very separate things. A mixture of weak leadership by the U.N. secretary general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and amnesia by the U.S., which seems to have learned nothing from the debacle in Somalia, has allowed U.N. peace-keeping to become totally discredited.

We need to get back to basics. Throughout the Cold War, peace-keeping was effective in Kashmir, the Golan Heights, Sinai, Cyprus, Lebanon and Namibia. The super-powers, by and large, kept their noses out of it. With the Cold War's end, super-power action was possible, and the sudden growth of CNN instant television and its imitators often convinced viewers that action was immediately desirable.

U.N. peace-keeping is still effective -- in Angola, Mozambique, El Salvador -- where the peace-keepers can work slowly and

patiently, mostly out of the public eye, with the legal consent and practical cooperation of all sides to the conflict. They uphold, monitor and implement agreements between or among warring parties without prejudice to the rights and claims of any side. Peace-keepers have no enemies; they are never deployed to help win a war, but only to help the warring parties end one.

In Bosnia, the ''peace-keepers'' are not Americans, but they seem to have taken a cue from American rhetoric. Their equipment, including tanks and machine-gun-mounted armored personnel carriers, vastly exceeds that of any prior peace-keeping force, other than the one in Somalia. They appear as warriors, and when French peace-keepers recently stormed Serb positions on the Vrbanja bridge, they skirted dangerously close to becoming party to the conflict.

The U.N. mission in Bosnia needs to be redefined. In return for a pledge to call off, permanently, the NATO bombers, it should be easy to win the release of the U.N. hostages. Then the U.N. High Commission for Refugees should be asked to withdraw and hand over its humanitarian work to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which would take over the job only on condition that workers not be protected by soldiers, the U.N.'s or anyone else's.

The peace-keepers could then concentrate on peace-keeping -- policing local agreements that serve the needs of the warring parties. To rescue General Rose's legacy -- a sniper-free Sarajevo, and the Muslim enclaves reasonably safely protected -- is probably now beyond the U.N.'s reach. But the peace-keepers can remain on hand for when the warring parties do decide they have had enough fighting.

The U.N. cannot solve every war -- and certainly not by force. All the international community can do is to offer help. That itself is a step forward for mankind. It is one that we belittle at our peril.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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