'Give me the battalions for peace': In an exclusive interview, the UN Secretary-General tells Harvey Morris about his battle with the EC

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DESPITE the current atmosphere of dissent and despondency at United Nations headquarters in New York, the Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali made it clear this weekend he does not intend vacating his wood-panelled suite above the East River until his time is up. And that will not be until 1996.

'There's a Catholic marriage between the Secretary-General and the Security Council. I'm not a Catholic,' said the 69-year-old Egyptian Copt, 'but it's a Catholic marriage - at least for the next four years and five months. After four years and five months, there will not be a divorce. One of the two will die.'

Speculation that the marriage might end sooner rather than later was prompted by last week's spate of attacks, leaked principally to the British press, against the substance and style of Mr Boutros- Ghali's leadership. Close aides said that the Secretary-General was shocked that the attacks had been highly personal - something he had come to expect from the Third World, including fellow Arabs, but not from the First.

The aides trace the present whispering campaign back to the British, who were at odds with Mr Boutros-Ghali over how to tackle the Bosnian crisis. But there has been no shortage of criticism from members of his permanent staff, who find his manner dismissive and high-handed.

But whatever is at the root of the present malaise at UN headquarters, there is no doubt that fundamental differences exist between the Secretary-General and some of the most powerful UN member states over the role and authority of the UN's chief executive in ensuring world peace in the post-Cold War era.

In an interview with the Independent, Mr Boutros-Ghali insisted that, according to the UN Charter, he enjoyed equal status with the 15-member Security Council and the wider General Assembly and that, when it came to peace-keeping, regional bodies such as the European Community, were there to serve him and not the other way round. 'Regional disputes must be dealt with at regional level,' he said, 'but regional organisations must be at the service of the United Nations and not the contrary.'

Similarly, when defining the Secretary-General's role , he borrowed Montesquieu's theory of the separation of powers: 'Where you have three powers, the Secretary-General, the Security Council, the General Assembly, they have to reach a consensus. The secretariat is an organ on equal footing with the other organs.'

His falling-out with Britain over the Bosnian crisis, in which the EC negotiator, Lord Carrington, sought to assign peace-keeping tasks to UN troops without consulting the Secretary-General, might well have been predicted. Britain never favoured the candidacy of the former Egyptian foreign minister, claiming that he was too old for the job and not forceful enough to push through the many reforms needed to revitalise the United Nations, while letting it be tacitly understood that he was also too pro-French. As Mr Boutros- Ghali noted at the weekend: 'The Entente Cordiale was signed in 1905, but the Hundred Years War still goes on.'

Perhaps at the root of the current opposition to Mr Boutros- Ghali from Britain and some of its close allies is the fact that he appears to have taken too seriously the proposition, much touted at the time of the Gulf war, that the UN was destined to play a central role in peace-keeping and peace- making in the post-Cold War era.

Not only has he called for prompt payment of funds to support UN operations - a constant demand of his predecessors - but he also wants his own battalions with which to wage peace.

He has now called for member states to put at his disposal rapid deployment units from within their armed forces to be on call for peace-keeping operations. His plan, as outlined in the interview, was that 'each country can put inside its own national forces a group for rapid deployment which would by defintion be trained for the UN and which would be at my disposal within 24 hours'.

The British Army could comfortably provide a unit of 2,000 men, he said; so could France or the United States. 'But if I have this with 10 countries, I can have immediately, in 24 hours, 20,000 soldiers. This would change my position, because otherwise I wouldn't be able to send the troops within three months.'

Which brought him back to Bosnia and Lord Carrington: 'This was my problem when we were discussing Europe. If I agreed to do this operation, it would take three months. So where is the interest of the Yugoslav people? My problem is how to reduce this (period) . . . If I had rapid deployment forces at my disposal - and I would not use them without the permission of the Security Council - I would know in advance that I had, in different military bases in different parts of the world and belonging to Great Britain, or belonging to France or to Germany, certain logistics at my disposal - Jeeps, telecommunications, cars, light arms.

'If I knew that I had at my disposal certain bases with certain elements, this would facilitate my work, and instead of taking three months it might take one week.'

Whether any of the large UN donors take to the idea of this supranational peace force concept may become clear when foreign ministers deliver their annual reports to the UN General Assembly in the autumn.

Meanwhile, the former Yugoslavia is likely to remain a bone of contention between them and the Secretary-General. He believes undue emphasis has been placed upon that crisis at the expense of others - principally Somalia - because the former Yugoslavia is in Europe and the belligerents have powerful lobbies in European capitals and in Washington.

'In the case of Yugoslavia you have the interest of the international community, Europe is interested. Somalia has no constituency in Europe or in America. The situation is complicated by the droughts and famine and by refugees. When you have 1 million refugees going to Europe, countries may hope to cope with the situation. When you have 1 million refugees going to Ethiopia or Djibouti or Kenya, you don't have the infrastructure to cope; they don't even have the infrastructure for their own people.

'In Yugoslavia they sign an agreement and they don't respect it; in Somalia they're not that sophisticated.'

His main fear is that the UN will be seen as taking sides in the conflict, provoking a Vietnam scenario. 'Our operation (in the former Yugoslavia) is now limited to peace-keeping. If you move from this to peace enforcement then you will take positions against one of the protagonists. Now our operation is based on the agreement of the two or three protagonists to the dispute. They have agreed our presence, they have accepted our presence. There is an agreement about the modality of our role and of our competence. But in the case of peace enforcement we have to take a position against one of the protagonists - we declare that he's an aggressor and we use enforcement against him.'

On the longer term prospects he said: 'My impression is that it will be a very long conflict, that we must prepare for that and that building peace will be very difficult. The patient, when he has left the hospital, must continue to be watched.'

(Photograph omitted)