Leading Article: The UN must show its teeth

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A HEAVY responsibility will fall on those involved in sending British troops to Bosnia in response to the United Nations request. The soldiers will be asked to risk their lives in a dangerous battle zone where they will find no easily identifiable adversary, no obvious military objective and no immediate British interest to defend. They can expect neither victory nor defeat, just a hard grind in a hostile environment that they will understand no better than the politicians who send them.

This does not mean that they should not go. European governments have rightly decided that the war in Bosnia represents both an affront to humanity and a threat to peace in the Balkans. The United Nations has endorsed the sending of humanitarian aid to the victims. Although this is a minimal response it is better than doing nothing. Britain would be wrong to stand aside.

The Government must, however, ensure that the risks are not increased by the muddle that appears to surround the whole UN operation in Bosnia. French soldiers and Italian airmen have been killed without provoking any armed response. The United Nations has been reluctant even to say who was responsible because it fears jeopardising its neutrality. Such a weak response will invite further killings.

Before British forces go there must be new rules giving unit commanders the right to return fire and to take any other measures they believe justified. UN forces already have the right to defend themselves. All that is needed is to make this right more explicit, to delegate decision-making to the lowest possible level and to ensure that all units have the resources they need, including air cover if necessary. The French, incredibly, were not only told not to fire back but were anyway without weapons of sufficient range.

The arguments for restraint are easy to understand. UN commanders, like the governments of member states, fear being dragged into a long Balkan war. They rightly hope that their military involvement can be limited to protecting convoys. But this must not become an excuse for not even protecting the convoys or the troops accompanying them. Sharp retaliation for any attack would be unlikely to increase the danger of deeper involvement. Rather the contrary. If UN forces were to show their teeth, as they must if they are to win respect, local forces would not wish to challenge them to a serious engagement. More probably, the response would be to shift the blame on to others.

This reinforces the need for the UN to shed its reluctance to apportion blame when it has the evidence. There is already enough deceit and evasion in Bosnia without adding to it. Those who shoot at UN forces must know that they will, where possible, be identified publicly, and preferably killed. This would also help to reduce the temptation among Bosnians to create incidents designed to suck in more outside forces.

Paddy Ashdown was right yesterday to warn of the dangers of sending British troops without the will to back them, the orders to defend them or a clear political aim to pursue. Reassurance has come from Malcolm Rifkind in the form of promises that the soldiers will have the right to defend themselves. But far more detailed information will have to be made available before the British public will accept that the precautions are sufficient.