Rethinking the role of peacekeeping

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 1995, 12:00am

THE world is outraged that the Bosnian Serbs should have kidnapped unarmed United Nations observers and taken them hostage. But the surprise is that the hostage-taking - and the unprecedented battle between French and Serbian forces yesterday - are not everyday occurrences in the Bosnian war.

NATO's bombing of Serb bunkers lends a grim new purpose to the taking of hostages for use as human shields. However, the role of international peacekeepers in keeping apart warring factions who are itching to get back into battle inevitably renders them vulnerable to attack and abduction. And, because they are heroes in their own countries, sent out to protect the helpless civilians and children of other nations, they are especially valuable bargaining counters for unscrupulous warlords, from Bosnia to Somalia.

The UN's latest force of peacekeepers has been in danger for so long without any sign that peace can be achieved that governments in Paris and elsewhere have a right to ask if it still serves their interests to put their soldiers at such risk. France has threatened to pull its troops out unless their role is redefined and greater emphasis is put on safety. With the international community increasingly divided over how to proceed - and over whether Bosnia warrants the trouble - this is a legitimate demand. But the decisions that will emerge from the coming review of the UN mandate in Bosnia will have profound implications for peacekeeping operations far beyond the former Yugoslavia.

The problems of Bosnia are particularly complex: the international issues involved are the same wherever troops are sent to keep the peace.

Does peacekeeping have a role when there is no immediate national interest at stake for the peacekeeper? Is international solidarity a higher cause than national interest? The assumption that this must be the case is one reason why these operations are conducted under United Nations auspices. Another is that the process forces a number of disinterested countries to share the risk. But even the United Nations is coming round to the view that it cannot be involved in every dispute.

If it cannot justify being in Rwanda or the Sudan - or intervening in Russia's 'near abroad' or America's 'back yard' - on what basis can the international body decide to send Blue Berets from Norway or Ireland to Angola or Mozambique? Pakistan and Malaysia have troops in Bosnia out of a sense of Muslim solidarity. But they, and other, non-Muslim armies also benefit from the chance to put troops on active duty. Is there a perverse role for peacekeeping operations as training grounds for peacetime armies? Perhaps most fundamental of all: can there be an end to the confusion between peacemaking and peacekeeping? Peacemakers, the Bible tells us, are blessed. That is what motivates former President Jimmy Carter, a deeply religious man, to travel the world brokering fragile peace agreements between bitter enemies. The same sentiment underlies international efforts to bring peace to countries torn apart by civil war. After the horror, our first reaction when confronted with television images of victims of ethnic cleansing and warlordism is to want to offer sympathy and succour. The next is to call on our governments to intervene to stop the carnage.

But, as the collapse of the Bosnian ceasefire brokered by Mr Carter illustrates, making a peace which will last is tougher than it looks. Real peacemaking often means taking sides. But different UN members may take different sides - as have the Russians and Americans in Bosnia - thus actually heightening international tensions and reviving the Cold War habit of building up local wars as proxies for big-power conflict. But neutral peacekeeping is not always a better option: it can, in the end, bog international troops down indefinitely and only prolong the conflict.

Worst of all, if a high-profile peacemaker flies in to broker a ceasefire, smiles for the cameras and departs for the safety of home, it is the men left behind to keep the peace who will be caught in the crossfire if the truce then breaks down, chained to posts in Bosnia or dragged dead through the streets of Mogadishu.