Forces for the good, and bad

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THAT there is corruption among United Nations troops in Bosnia comes as no surprise. There is, and always has been, corruption among all troops, and the fact that a soldier is wearing a blue beret or blue helmet does not automatically elevate his ethical standards. That said, the latest revelations about the actual scale of current UN corruption in Bosnia are alarming indeed. Nothing on this scale was alleged against any previous UN operation to my knowledge - at least not by such trustworthy and knowledgeable observers. But neither has any previous UN operation been entirely pure.

Most corruption, in the context of such operations, begins with currency smuggling. I remember on my first day as UN Representative in Katanga, in April 1961, Satan presenting himself to me in the form of our cook, Ngoye, at the residence I shared in Elisabethville with senior UN military officers. Ngoye, a tall handsome man whose front teeth were filed into sharp points, addressed me in a tone of authority: 'Moi Mumulba, moi sasanche]' I could understand what this meant literally. It meant: 'I am a member of the Baluba people. I exchange.' I couldn't quite see the relevance of this, however. I briefly imagined that Ngoye was claiming to have some kind of sacred function among his people, concerned with mediation, that could be of potential service to my UN mission.

One of my military colleagues briefly and neutrally explained what Ngoye was driving at. The Baluba are a large people who moved freely at this time between what claimed to be the Independent State of Katanga (and was in the UN's eyes no more than a province) and the territory of the Republic of the Congo. Because Katanga was not internationally recognised, its currency was generally weaker than that of the Congo, which was universally recognised. I was paid by the UN in hard currency. If I changed this in Katanga for the debased money that was legal tender there, I would lose money. If on the other hand I gave the money to Ngoye, he could change it into Congo money, with which he could buy Katanga money at a realistic and profitable rate. In this way, we would both be the gainers, and nobody a whit the wiser.

I was senior enough, and cautious enough, not to be drawn by that one. But if I had been a young subaltern, what Ngoye had to say would have interested me strangely. And I believe many UN personnel, including officers, were quietly operating the Baluba exchange mechanism. In most cases, I believe this was harmless enough. But it must have drawn some more reckless spirits into deeper waters, even in those days. Through the currency racket you came into contact with the more ruthless and profitable levels of racketeering: drugs (legal and illegal), prostitution (protection and exploitation of), bribery, blackmail, and elimination of competition, if necessary by murder.

If the UN is present in any country, it is because anarchic conditions prevail there. In such conditions, the cleverest and most successful racketeers will seek UN co-operation and UN cover. In Bosnia, it would appear that they have got quite a lot of this. In these conditions, UN forces, in particular places, may become part of the anarchy they are there to dispel.

What is complacently called 'humanitarian peace-keeping' seems peculiarly liable to such forms of military, political and economic gangrene. In such operations, UN forces, in relatively small numbers and without rigorously effective command, control and accounting structures, are convoying quite large amounts of valuable goods. Both medicine and food can command high prices in the deprived communities at the point of arrival. Unless great discipline prevails among the troops distributing the goods, it is liable to be the least deprived, not the most deprived among the receiving population who get the lion's share. Market forces are not suspended for humanitarian operations. They just operate more feverishly and more lucratively in the short term.

Unfortunately, humanitarian peacekeeping seems particularly subversive of military discipline. It means, to begin with, scattering troops around in quite small units - contrary to the principle of military concentration - often with little to do except listening on the radio to eminent persons, in comfortable locations, arguing about the purpose of the UN mission at any given moment. Meanwhile a variety of attractive forms of mischief presents itself to the bored soldiery on the ground. A prudent officer commanding a small body of restless men in a wild corner of Bosnia might well find it prudent to interpret his mission in quite a permissive sense, where his troops are concerned.

Nor is a good example being given, even at a much higher level. The various national contingents are increasingly refractory to a UN central control, which was always rather shaky, but did at one time command at least a reasonable modicum of outward deference. The US - according to a leaked Clinton administration document - is now instructing those US officers who are nominally under UN command to feel free to disregard any UN order they may find to be 'illegal' or 'militarily imprudent'. Why should not other UN contingents accord themselves the same privilege? And they do. No wonder UN troops on the ground are confused and barely amenable to discipline. Under the UN flag, whether in Bosnia or Somalia or elsewhere, Italians, Pakistanis, Ukrainians and others are running their operations under their own rules.

It does not look, under these conditions, as if 'humanitarian peace-keeping', conducted by the UN through national contingents, can last much longer. In Bosnia and Somalia it is beginning to look more like a complication of the disease it is supposed to cure. The idea of a professional multinational volunteer UN force deserves urgent study. Such a force could not intervene effectively in all the places where the UN is now trying to intervene. But neither can the UN, as now organised, intervene in all these places without damaging itself and those it is trying to help.

(Photograph omitted)