United Nations: What's gone wrong? / The high cost of peace-keeping: Failure in Yugoslavia

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE the Zagreb headquarters of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor) in former Yugoslavia, candles burn and bunches of flowers adorn a long wall of bricks built up by the bereaved, each block painted with the name of a victim of the war. The memorial wall in Croatia's capital is a symbol of the bitterness, disillusion and air of failure that besets the UN's mission in the Balkans.

The UN involvement in Yugoslavia began in 1991, when public opinion and politicians believed that a new international order was genuinely in the making. Now, after 59 fatalities and at least 677 other casualties in its ranks, Unprofor finds it can satisfy nobody. Its soldiers are spat upon in the streets of Zagreb. In besieged Sarajevo, they attract derision from the Bosnian leadership. To the Serbs, they represent a hostile international community.

How did this come about? In fact, the UN was forced into a peace-keeping task against the instincts of its most experienced officials. Many senior figures in the UN's Yugoslav operation believe that European diplomacy led directly to war in Bosnia and that US gestures towards intervention prolonged it. Many have come to the conclusion that the UN should never have intervened and that it should now get out.

In June 1991, Croatia and Slovenia seceded from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, setting off hostilities with the Yugoslav National Army and its Serb masters in Belgrade. By October, 13 ceasefires arranged under European Community negotiation had come and gone. The EC asked the United Nations to become involved. The Secretary-General at the time, Javier Perez de Cuellar, appointed Cyrus Vance as special envoy. He brokered a ceasefire between Serbia and Croatia.

The next phase was to put a peace-keeping force in place to monitor this truce. On 21 February 1992, the Security Council established Unprofor, with its headquarters in a still peaceful Sarajevo. The force was supposed to provide 'an interim arrangement' until a political solution was reached. But international mediation failed to settle the Serb-Croat conflict. Now, after more than 18 months, the peace-keepers sit uneasily between furious Croats and Serbs determined to keep control of territory acquired by force.

'In traditional peace-keeping we don't disarm at the point of a gun,' explained Shashi Tharoor, a senior UN official in New York who handles Unprofor affairs. 'We supervise and we monitor voluntary disarming.'

Mr Boutros-Ghali described the limitations even more clearly. 'If there is no political will of the protagonists to solve peacefully their dispute, we cannot play a role,' he said. A further, profound contradiction complicated the enterprise. The UN has a built-in bias towards sovereign states. In late 1991 both the UN and the United States wanted to keep Yugoslavia together, but the Western Europeans, with Germany in the lead, had decided to let it fall apart.

Mr Perez de Cuellar wrote to the German Foreign Minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, asking that Germany slow down its campaign to recognise President Franjo Tudjman's regime in Zagreb. Mr Genscher wrote back to refuse, in terms that bordered on the undiplomatic.

British officials recall that the Foreign Office opposed the premature recognition of Croatia. The ambassador in Belgrade, Sir Peter Hall, had outlined the pros and cons in no uncertain terms. But these were the frantic days leading up to the negotiation of the Maastricht treaty, and, according to two senior Whitehall sources, the fate of Croatia was decided in a trade-off between John Major and the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. 'Kohl supported us on the crucial points we needed at Maastricht and we gave in on recognition in return,' said one UK official. 'It didn't seem too bad a deal at the time.'

The EC, bound by its commitment to a common foreign policy, recognised Croatia as an independent sovereign state and then offered the same chance to Bosnia. 'The recognition of Croatia may have helped to stop the Serb-Croat war,' explained a senior UN official, 'but recognition doomed Bosnia.'

Cyrus Vance, the UN's special envoy, hastily ordered his assistant, a hard-nosed American diplomat named Herbert Okun, to meet the leaders of Bosnia's nascent government, Alija Izetbegovic and Ejup Ganic. 'Izetbegovic and Ganic told Okun they were going for international recognition and they wanted the UN to send 10,000 peace-keepers to Bosnia straight away,' recalled an official present at the meeting.

The UN team sought to remonstrate. The legalities alone, they felt, were nightmarish. How could they persuade the Security Council to send peace-keepers to what was a province of a sovereign member state to help it secede from that state? They believed the Security Council could never endorse such a precedent and said so. Mr Ganic turned to Mr Okun, the official recalled, and said simply: 'The Europeans are handing out tickets now and if we don't get one we're going to miss the train.'

'The Europeans gave them eight days to change 600 years of history,' said the official. The negotiating team headed back to New York in gloom.

By the spring of 1992, Bosnia predictably broke apart as Muslims and Croats fought Serbs backed by the Milosevic regime in Belgrade. In April, the Security Council made a forlorn appeal for reason. In May, most of Unprofor's headquarters staff left Sarajevo for the safety of Zagreb.

On 4 May, Mr Boutros- Ghali dispatched his undersecretary-general for peace-keeping, the former British diplomat Marrack Goulding, to assess the prospects for a UN force in Bosnia. Mr Goulding recommended in a report to the Secretary-General that the UN should stay out.

But by then Bosnia had become an issue of international public concern. 'The argument was not about traditional peace-keeping,' said a UN official, 'it was: what can we do to stop this horrible carnage we're seeing on television?'

The UN was now caught in a trap. It deployed troops, but not in sufficient numbers to fulfil the mandates handed down by the Security Council. It was supposed to conduct diplomatic negotiations to coerce the belligerents into a settlement, yet its impotence was exposed with every violation of the no-fly zone over Bosnia and every impediment placed in the way of its humanitarian convoys. The commands of the Security Council lost authority by the month.

Lord Owen, the EC mediator, and the new UN mediator, the former Norwegian foreign minister Thorvald Stoltenberg, are now searching for an all-embracing solution to all the wars in former Yugoslavia, having failed to induce the parties in Bosnia to sign a separate peace agreement.

Mr Stoltenberg believes that in the Serb-Croat conflict, as well as in the three-way war in Bosnia, the United Nations plays a role far removed from the lofty expectations of 1991, yet perhaps closer to reality. 'We are a scapegoat for the parties,' he said. 'It can be politically important for them. They can blame the UN for what has gone wrong, and that can help them to deal with each other.'

(Photographs omitted)