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UN Struggles to Keep Politics Out of Relief

Officials worry that peacekeepers are becoming targets, as UN troops often face choice of how much force is necessary

ANY strength the United Nations has is rooted in its reputation for neutrality and integrity. Yet as the organization becomes increasingly involved in intense ethnic conflicts, UN personnel often are accused by one side or the other of partiality.

* Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was pelted with rocks and garbage in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The protesters, who ripped down and stamped on a UN flag, back one of the two leading Somali warlords. Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed accuses the UN and its chief of aiding his rival, Mohamed Ali Mahdi. Three days before, the UN chief was jeered in Bosnia where Muslims say the UN has done too little too late to be of help.

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* In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge faction, which has twice taken UN peacekeepers hostage recently, accuses the UN of siding with the Vietnamese. This week mercurial Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk announced he will no longer cooperate with the UN peacekeepers, charging that they have harassed his pro-royalist political party.

However undeserved and unavoidable some of this sniping may be, the incidents underscore the need for fresh approaches and renewed concern for appearances as the UN tries to carry out its traditional duties in the shifting geopolitics of the 1990s.

One key case in point is the UN's responsibility to provide humanitarian aid and to protect refugees. The UN is learning that many of the traditional methods of supplying help no longer work.

Negotiating the delivery of aid in conflict situations is now a necessity. "We have to negotiate with checkpoints everywhere," says UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata. In the former Yugoslavia, where the UNHCR has been the lead relief coordinating agency, one convoy recently passed 90 roadblocks en route from Zagreb to Sarajevo, a passage of roughly 250 miles.

Even after warring parties give their consent, relief supplies often are looted or used for bribes. Delivery vehicles have been shelled and hijacked. Even airlifts are difficult: UN relief flights into Sarajevo frequently have been halted for security reasons.

In northern Iraq, many UN trucks escorting relief supplies to Kurds have been destroyed or damaged by bomb attacks.

UN and other aid workers increasingly are targets themselves. A British UNICEF employee was gunned down Saturday in Somalia, where aid workers have long hired local gunmen to protect personnel and supplies.

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Providing security for relief supplies is fast becoming a UN norm rather than an exception. Yet peacekeepers are not trained for such work. Some relief workers and other analysts worry that the political and military nature of peacekeeping could tarnish the relief agencies' reputation for strict neutrality.

British and French concern that their peacekeepers on the ground in Bosnia could become a target is a key factor in the UN Security Council's delayed move to enforce the UN ban on military flights there.

Peacekeepers traditionally fire only in self-defense but the Security Council has allowed UN personnel in Bosnia to use force to stop any interference with their mission.

"It's not as easy as saying, `Now we authorize a peacekeeping force to fight,' " says David Scheffer, an international lawyer with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Peacekeepers aren't trained to enter into combat. They're being used as a pretext to avoid the kind of [enforcement] force necessary."

One of the great dilemmas the UN now faces, says the UNHCR's Mrs. Ogata, is deciding how much force is necessary.

"If forces are going to fight their way into a place," she says, "humanitarian organizations are going to have a very hard time following because their credibility as impartial organizations would be undermined."

"The minute armed escorts use guns, relief workers are no longer neutral figures," agrees Felice Gaer, a human rights expert at the UN Association of the USA. One solution, she says, would be using military force in advance of a relief convoy to clear an area, such as a sweep of land mines in Cambodia, rather than using force to accompany the aid.

Cornelio Sommaruga, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, says the UN must not link humanitarian activities to political settlement efforts. Providing military security for relief supplies must remain a temporary, exceptional measure, he says, unless the world is ready to give up all hope of obtaining respect for humanitarian work. His organization announced in mid-December that it would use no US military escorts to distribute food in Somalia.

ALL UN members jealously guard their sovereignty. Yet getting aid to civilians caught in conflict zones is increasingly seen as justification enough for intervention. Last year the General Assembly changed the mandate of the UN World Food Programme so it could operate without the consent of host governments. The reluctance of the many warring clans in Somalia to give such consent was a major factor in the long UN delay in getting aid there.

The UN is trying to take a more coordinated approach to emergencies through its new Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), headed by UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Eliasson. Created less than a year ago, its job is to provide early warning of imminent crises and mobilize needed resources.

Yet many diplomats, who have been debating relief and human rights issues recently in the General Assembly, say the DHA is understaffed and underfunded.

Some refugee situations could be eased or averted, these diplomats say, if more early attention were paid to social, economic, and political rights.

One recent General Assembly resolution urges the UNHCR to explore protection and aid strategies that address basic problems which could trigger an exodus of refugees.

Also, many diplomats say humanitarian aid now must be viewed in the context of long-term development.

"We have to see to it that we build bridges between relief, rehabilitation, and development," Mr. Eliasson says.

The donor response to humanitarian emergencies continues to be uneven. In a report last fall, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said governments have supported well-publicized, consolidated appeals, such as those for the drought in southern Africa and for the former Yugoslavia, but that the response to standing humanitarian needs, such as those in Afghanistan, often have been inadequate.

Boutros-Ghali pointed to delays between pledges and actual donations. The UN's Central Emergency Revolving Fund, for instance, aimed at providing faster help in crises, became operational in May when pledges hit the $50 million target. Yet within six months only $30 million had actually been received.

The UNHCR watches over an estimated 18 million refugees around the world. UNHCR Ogata says only about half have any realistic opportunity of returning home.

Most nations agree that those countries which border conflicts have taken in far more than their fair share of refugees. African nations have been especially generous, she says.

Western European nations, facing immigration protests at home, have been sharply criticized for refusing to accept larger numbers of Bosnian refugees.

The idea of providing safe havens in which refugees can be fed and sheltered before eventually returning home is increasingly popular. But carving out such areas in war zones is a tough job, and opinions differ on exactly what the concept means.

Yet Florian Krenkel, an Austrian diplomat who chairs the General Assembly's third committee, which has passed resolutions on relief and refugee issues, says it is not new laws or mandates that are needed but the political will to act on a case-by-case basis.

Much as relief workers and diplomats might like to keep distinctions sharp between relief and political efforts, pressures to integrate the two are likely to remain strong. Although relief is the stated reason for UN intervention in Somalia, the organization is ready to move ahead when conditions are right to help restore order and broker a political settlement.

"You can't separate the question of peace from human rights," Mr. Krenkel says.

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