Inside File: Bureaucracy ticks over in UN war headquarters

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AS THE United States warns that the minute-hand is ticking towards air strikes in Bosnia, the only thing working in the UN headquarters war-room are the clocks.

Six months ago officials proudly announced that the UN was setting up a 'proper operations room' to run its peace-keeping operations around the globe. 'Instead of people sitting amid potted plants, filing cabinets and coffee cups from nine to five, there will be military experts 24 hours a day with command and control equipment and clocks on the wall showing the time in Sarajevo, Mogadishu and elsewhere,' one said.

Now, even when the UN chief has demanded his organisation be 'in the loop' of the planning of the air strikes, the operations room is still not up and running. It is currently housed in an annexe across First Avenue from the UN itself, next door to the US delegation building in New York. A recent visitor reported that the activity in the room consisted chiefly of two clocks on the wall and a few men unpacking some boxes. Requests from journalists to view the operation have been denied. 'There isn't much to see, and that wouldn't do the image of the UN much good,' one UN source said.

The war-room has been promised new quarters in the UN Secretariat skyscraper. But a General Assembly typing pool in need of temporary premises has been moved in for two months, so the operations room must wait. New computers have been donated by the US government, presumably in lieu of the pounds 350m it owes to the UN in unpaid assessments. They are still under dust covers.

In January Lewis Mackenzie, the former UN commander in Sarajevo, fired off the following tirade: 'Do not get into trouble as a commander in the field after 5pm New York time, or Saturday and Sunday. There is no one to answer the phone.'

Cedric Thornberry, a top UN peace-keeping official, conceded that the UN did not have all its 'support machinery' in place, but said the general was missing the point. 'Like many splendid peace-keepers, he fails to get to the heart of the problem,' he said. 'The UN is the sum total of what governments want us to be.'

That, indeed, also appears to be the problem in translating the plan for a full-time operation into practice: 'The delay is probably due in part to lack of funds, in part to lack of political guidance, and in part to the fact that there is no particular agreement on what officers should be put in there, or what autonomous decisions they should be able to take,' one Western official said. 'In the British Ministry of Defence, for instance, the line of command is very clear. But it can't be so at the UN, because the officials still need decisions from national politicians. Let's say Italian peace- keepers come under pressure in Somalia; can this operations room take the decision to move in a German contingent? I suspect the operation will amount to a lot of clocks on the wall and people being paid overtime for working nights.'

General Jean Cot, the French UN commander in Zagreb, told a parliamentary delegation from Paris last week that he was increasingly concerned about 'the slowness, the bureaucracy of almost Soviet standards, and the constraining procedures of the UN'.

The Kenyan contingent has just received a consignment of fur hats that were to have kept them warm last winter. The delivery of new tyres for the Jeep of a French captain in Krajina took six months. To those parliamentarians who inquired about the warring factions gutting one another, Gen Cot replied: 'Let's talk about the efficiency, the machinery, the influence and the mafia' in the UN. 'It was as if I had landed on the moon.'

In the Foreign Office, senior mandarins are having a break. The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd - who has borne the brunt of public criticism over Bosnia - is unusually taking three weeks' holiday. So is his capable under-secretary with responsibility for Yugoslav affairs. This is in marked contrast to the situation in another month of August, just three years ago, when the holidays were cut short. But then that was the Gulf crisis.