Leading Article: A fine, painful line for the UN

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations is being cruelly tested in Somalia and Bosnia. In both it is stumbling unwillingly across the line between peace-keeping and peace-enforcement. Its troops, supposedly engaged on purely humanitarian missions, are killing and being killed. The most visible differences are that in Somalia, the Americans are using air power whereas in Bosnia they are not, and that in Somalia UN forces have killed unarmed civilians. But in both, the UN is confronting a choice between retreat or deeper involvement. The outcome will go a long way towards determining whether it can be an effective force in the post-Communist world.

The failure that stares it in the face in Somalia and Bosnia is not its own, but that of the politicians who instructed it. They did not properly assess the situations in either country. Neither did they set clear and feasible aims nor muster the will and resources to convince the warring factions that they would see the missions through.

In Somalia, President Bush hoped that a brief military humanitarian operation would break the power of the warlords and help him to win the election. He was wrong on both counts. American troops were pulled out before the job was finished (as in the Gulf war), and the warlords were not disarmed. Little informed thought was given to a political solution. When it was, the warlords were treated as politicians. The same mistake was made in Bosnia through months of negotiations with Serbian leaders.

The lessons in both cases are the same. Half-hearted, badly planned engagements are dangerous, and the distinction between peace-keeping and peace-enforcement will frequently break down. Putting UN forces into war zones without the power to influence the course of the war will bring the organisation into disrepute. The sight of UN officers pleading with thugs for the passage of aid convoys, or watching helplessly as civilians are massacred, is deeply humiliating. The distinction that needs to be made is not between peace-making and peace-enforcement but between engagement and non-engagement. Once engaged, the UN can afford to fail only so many times before it is discredited.

In former Yugoslavia, determined intervention at the outset of the Serb- Croat war would probably have stopped the conflict spreading. Now there is only a narrow space for a solution between the two extremes of imposing a settlement by force, which would be extremely expensive and bloody, or withdrawing, as threatened by General Philippe Morillon, the UN commander on the spot. That would involve a massive deployment of Nato power to cover the retreat.

If that course was taken, there would no longer be any point in maintaining the arms embargo or trying to influence events. The UN would have lost the necessary authority. The war would then burn itself out after huge loss of life and the probable defeat of the Muslims, with consequences that would extend beyond the region to the watching Muslim world and any trouble spots that might otherwise have been susceptible to UN intervention. Engagement appears the lesser of two evils. The more determined it is, the less it will cost.