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UN questions if use of force would bolster hand of its keepers of peace

The UN office in charge of peacekeeping has heaved a collective sigh of relief. Attacks on French members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) have stopped, at least for now. But, since the UN does not know why the August-September spate of attacks has ended, it cannot rule out that they will not resume.

UNIFIL's recent troubles have fueled talk here about how UN peacekeeping efforts can be strengthened.

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Some circles call for allowing the blue-helmeted soldiers greater use of force. They now may use force only in self-defense, although, a UN official says, ``we interpret self-defense fairly liberally now.''

Past and present UN officials oppose expanding the use of force. Remaining neutral, they say, is essential to effective peacekeeping; if UN troops were to use more firepower, they might become a party to the conflict. These officials cite southern Lebanon as a case where, because so many groups are vying for control, a more aggressive UNIFIL would only heighten tensions.

Other UN peacekeeping forces are UNFICYP, a force in Cyprus that separates the island's Greeks and Turks, and UNDOF, a force that patrols a buffer zone between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The UN also operates two observer missions -- in the Middle East and between India and Pakistan -- which monitor cease-fires but do not station UN troops.

UN officials consider the Cyprus and Golan forces to be successful because they have a clear mandate and the support of the conflicting parties -- a the requirement for establishment of a peacekeeping force.

The role of a UN force can be more than just peacekeeper, however. In 1984 the Golan force facilitated a Syrian-Israeli prisoner exchange. In Lebanon, UNIFIL contingents run free medical clinics, and in Cyprus, UN soldiers are helping restore agricultural activity.

The biggest problem for UNIFIL is its failure, over eight years, to fulfill its mandate: deployment upto the Israeli border (where it was meant to confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces), stopping attacks across the frontier from either side, and helping restore the authority of the Lebanese government.

Israel has refused to pull out of its self-proclaimed ``security zone'' north of the border out of a concern for the security of northern Israel. So the UN keeps its force next to the Israeli zone, believing UNIFIL serves as a buffer between the Israelis and radical Shiite Muslims.

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Peacekeeping advocates believe it is needed in the nuclear age to keep regional conflicts from developing into broader wars. UN insiders have several suggestions for strengthening peacekeeping, in theory and practice:

Promote understanding of what UN peacekeeping does and does not mean.

``Many of [peacekeeping's] critics and also many of its champions claim too much for it,'' says Marrack Goulding, head of UN peacekeeping operations. ``It does not purport to be the whole answer. All you can realistically claim to be doing in a peacekeeping operation is to stop the killing and create a climate in which tempers can cool down. Then somebody else can take on the more difficult task of negotiating a lasting solution.''

Better financial support from the world community. Inconsistent funding has been a problem for UN peacekeeping from its beginning in 1956.

Last April, the US began withholding $21 million -- half its annual share of the UNIFIL budget. Congress charged that UNIFIL was ineffective and cited the return of Palestinian guerrillas to south Lebanon. Initially, it was the Soviets who withheld funding for UNIFIL in 1978, saying it was up to the aggressors to pay. But in April, the Soviets agreed to start paying their $18 million annual share, perhaps to score points with the Arabs.

Greater use of the UN's potential. Some countries, like South Africa, do not see UN forces as neutral and therefore do not consider them an option for helping settle a conflict.

Adaptation of peacekeeping techniques for multinational efforts to combat terrorism.

A general criticism of UN peacekeeping is that, in time, the presence of a force allows the parties in a conflict to become accustomed to the situation and stop trying seriously to settle their dispute. Critics cite Cyprus as an example.

UN officials counter by saying that withdrawing a force before the warring parties have settled their differences can only lead to more war. They cite the case of the UN's first peacekeeping force on the Sinai Peninsula: In 1967 Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted the force removed, and so it was. The June 1967 Arab-Israeli war soon broke out. It might have broken out anyway, says Gen. Indar Rikhye, a retired Indian Army general who commanded the Sinai force. But withdrawal of the troops removed the final obstacle to war.

Supporters of UN peacekeeping challenge critics to find a better alternative. ``It is the most innovative instrument of diplomacy that the international community has forged since World War II,'' General Rikhye says. ``It's a demonstration of the will of the world community to keep peace.''

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