Leading Article: Message of a murder

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NO EPISODE has more painfully underlined the helplessness of United Nations troops in Bosnia than the fatal shooting by a Serb soldier of Hakija Turajlic, a Bosnian deputy prime minister, in the apparent safety of a UN armoured vehicle. The vehicle, in which there were also five French UN soldiers, was challenged on the way to Sarajevo from the airport by a Bosnian Serb road- block manned by more than 50 militiamen and two tracked armoured vehicles. There followed almost two hours of argument, not least over the opening of the vehicle's hatches, which the Serbs had no right to demand.

Heavily outnumbered, the UN soldiers complied, even though UN rules say that doors should be kept closed. They were open by the time a French battalion commander, Colonel Patrice Sartre, arrived to take charge. As the negotiations continued, a Serb soldier suddenly shot seven bullets without warning over the French colonel's shoulder into Mr Turajlic's chest. No one knows under whose orders the assassin was acting.

The killing will further increase Bosnian Muslim mistrust of any agreement eventually emerging from the peace talks that resumed yesterday in Geneva. It will also intensify the anger that the UN's inability to act arouses in Bosnia. In fact, the fault lies not so much with the UN itself as with the member states in the Security Council, who take the decisions. They wanted to be seen to be doing something to rescue Bosnia from its long agony; but they were not willing, for a mixture of understandable but fundamentally short-sighted reasons, to commit themselves to the dangers of greater military or administrative involvement. So the role of UN troops in Bosnia was restricted to humanitarian escort duties: they could fire only if fired upon - subject, of course, to the risks thus incurred.

The results were predictable. An organisation widely seen to be very powerful has been forced to behave as if it were impotent. Its troops witness atrocities but can do nothing to stop or punish them. They are fired at, but are not in a position to respond. To change the mandate would involve a much heavier military commitment. Add to this spectacle of powerlessness the periodic bungling of UN officials - resulting, for example, in desperately needed heaters being delivered without flues - and the erosion of the UN's reputation becomes serious.

A similar decline in the UN's reputation has taken place in faraway Cambodia, where 16,000 UN troops are attempting to pave the way for free elections to be held by May, though sheer incompetence has played a larger part there. In Somalia, by contrast, the American-led operation is proving far more effective because the Americans are present in overwhelming strength and can adjust the rules as they go along: had Somali 'technicals' tried to hold up a US vehicle, the checkpoint would have been destroyed subsequently if not instantly.

The UN was set up after the Second World War to deal with inter-state conflicts, but now finds itself attempting to mediate primarily in civil wars. The unequivocal message from Bosnia is that in dealing with these, half measures are ineffectual. If the conduct of UN troops in Bosnia is uneven, the mandate under which they are operating is fatally