Leading Article: UN at risk on two fronts

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The Independent Online
IN BOTH Somalia and Bosnia, the operations of the United Nations are in danger of becoming discredited, even if for opposite reasons. In Somalia, UN troops have loose rules of engagement. Yesterday they once again looked trigger-happy. In Bosnia, excessively tight rules of engagement prevent UN forces from taking any form of offensive action, however desperately necessary it may seem to protect aid convoys and innocent civilians. Yesterday's horrors in Sarajevo underlined that helplessness.

In Somalia, UN commanders appear determined to eliminate General Mohamed Farah Aideed, the warlord they hold most responsible for wrecking the UN's aid mission. In Bosnia, UN troops are obliged to negotiate the safe passage of aid convoys with local warlords. In Somalia, road blocks have been blasted and ammunition dumps destroyed, as many reckon they should have been in Bosnia. Meanwhile, those who initiated the carnage in former Yugoslavia are treated by the UN almost as statesmen. It is striking, too, that Western governments have been so skilful in deflecting public pressure for more effective intervention in Bosnia, while happily yielding to less intense pressure for action in Somalia.

In retrospect, dispatching troops to Bosnia solely to protect aid convoys, while preventing them from doing so effectively, was a political masterstroke. It demonstrated that action was being taken to save lives and so defused public anger. Yet by providing potential hostages to local forces, it effectively ruled out actual military intervention.

Yesterday's revenge killing of Western journalists in Mogadishu might seem to show that all those doubts about tougher action in Bosnia, skilfully sown by the British government in particular, were justified.

It is true that local reactions to foreign military intervention can never be accurately predicted. No doubt in Bosnia both the Serbs and the Croats might have extracted a hideous revenge on foreign aid workers and journalists, as well as on any troops left behind, had they been similarly attacked from the air. Yet no one could imagine that such action would be without costs. They would clearly have been lower in Somalia if the UN's intelligence had been better: too often the wrong targets have been hit. The effect has been to strengthen support for General Aideed rather than to weaken it.

The question, in Somalia as in Bosnia, is whether the best possible strategy has been conceived, and whether the cost of implementing it is justified by the outcome. As the collapse of the aid operation in Bosnia threatens an estimated two million people with actual starvation, the price of inaction there may be very high indeed. In Somalia, by contrast, the UN's militarily backed operations outside the anarchic capital are proving relatively effective.

It is too early yet to say how the balance sheet of the two operations will eventually look. Sufficiently harrowing television images from Bosnia might conceivably oblige the UN to adopt Somalia-style tactics there, too. Today, the dangers of doing too much may seem clearer than the dangers of doing too little. But a year hence, playing safe may be seen to have been far more dangerous.