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The UN Leaves Bosnia With Head Held High

AS a NATO-led force takes over peacekeeping duties in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), a much-misunderstood, widely excoriated operation, has come to an end. But criticisms of the UN effort have left deep wounds on the organization - especially among those of us who share the world's outrage at the suffering of innocent civilians in the tragic Bosnian war but reject the blame so unthinkingly heaped on the UN.

The United Nations forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina were not an army sent to help one side win the conflict. Yet the peacekeepers of UNPROFOR were reviled for failing to do what they were never mandated, financed, equipped, or deployed to do. The secretary-general and the soldiers of the UN carry out the mandates given to them by the Security Council, with the resources allocated by the international community. These mandates did not authorize the secretary-general to declare war; the Security Council did not decree a ''Desert Storm'' in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Instead, these mandates required him to alleviate the consequences of the war for the civilians of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to help promote peace. Peace sadly proved elusive until the decisive American efforts at Dayton. Nonetheless, there are people alive and fed and sheltered in Bosnia-Herzegovina today who would not be alive if UNPROFOR had not been deployed there.

Impartiality a must

Should UNPROFOR have jeopardized these achievements by using more force, sooner? This is a central problem if the international community deploys peacekeepers where there is no peace to keep.

Impartiality is the oxygen of peacekeeping: The only way peacekeepers can work is by being trusted by both sides, being clear and transparent in their dealings, keeping lines of communication open. The moment they lose this trust, the moment they are seen by one side as the ''enemy,'' they become part of the problem they were sent to solve. This is what happened in Somalia, and it is striking how the United Nations was blamed for not doing in Bosnia what it was blamed for doing in Somalia.

The reality of the situation was reflected in UNPROFOR's pattern of deployment, dictated by the mandates given to it by governments on the Security Council. This put peacekeepers and relief workers in dispersed locations, loosely configured across all the battle lines, traveling in highly visible white-painted vehicles.

For such a vulnerable force to take sides through the use of force might have been morally gratifying - at least briefly - but it would also have been militarily irresponsible for most of UNPROFOR's existence. The NATO bombing campaign last September was made possible by the loss of the ''safe areas'' of Srebrenica and Zepa and the unwillingness of governments to contribute troops for Gorazde. It reduced the UN's dependence on Serb cooperation - and vulnerability to Serb retaliation.

UNPROFOR throughout had the difficult challenge of reconciling its authority to use force with its obligation to perform all the other tasks mandated by the Security Council - tasks requiring the cooperation of, and deployment among, all parties to the conflict. In exercising its limited capacity to be forceful, UNPROFOR constantly had to be careful not to trip over the fine line that separates peace from war, and peacekeeping from disaster.

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An alternative to war

What lay behind this approach was, of course, the reality that peacekeepers were sent in because the world was unable or unwilling to pursue the alternative course of going to war. Arguably, UNPROFOR responded to the need to ''do something'' when policymakers were not prepared to expend the political, military, and financial resources required to achieve the outcome that the press and opinion-leaders were clamoring for. There was a gap between the overall rhetorical thrust of international intervention in the crisis and the actual mandates and means given to the peacekeepers in the field.

If the objective of the international community was the firm and secure establishment of a viable sovereign state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as many Security Council resolutions imply, then peacekeeping was not a direct means to that end; rather, it was a means of containing the situation while others - diplomats and negotiators - pursued that end. All too often, however, the end objectives were framed in terms that would require war to fulfill them, while the world did not commit either the political will or the resources to conduct a war.

This was especially the case with the ''safe areas.'' The Security Council resolutions on the ''safe areas'' expected the mere presence of United Nations troops to ''deter attacks.'' They carefully avoided asking the peacekeepers to ''defend'' or ''protect'' these areas, but authorized them to call in air power ''in self-defense'' - a masterpiece of diplomatic drafting, but very hard to implement as an operational directive.

The resolutions resulted in woefully inadequate numbers of UN peacekeepers being deployed in enclaves like Srebrenica, where they could not receive supplies of food, spare parts, or weapons except with the cooperation of the Serbs.

The secretary-general originally asked for 34,000 soldiers to provide ''deterrence through strength.'' Only 7,600 were authorized, and they took a year to arrive.

As it became increasingly clear that only force could meaningfully protect territory in the midst of an ongoing war, UNPROFOR officials found themselves in the untenable position of having to call in airstrikes on the very people among whom they were deployed, and on whose cooperation they were dependent. It is fundamentally unviable to try to make war and peace with the same people on the same territory at the same time.

Thousands of saved lives

Even with these problems, the numbers of deaths in the former Yugoslavia declined after 1992 in direct proportion to the deployment of the peacekeepers there (in Bosnia alone, from 130,000 deaths in 1992 to fewer than 3,000 in 1994). As President Clinton put it, ''that's still tragic, but it's hardly a colossal failure.''

Peacekeeping is a great challenge, one that requires courage, impartiality, commitment, and the cooperation of the parties on the ground. Where the conditions are right, peacekeeping operations have accomplished a great deal, as the United Nations has recently demonstrated in Cambodia, in El Salvador, and in Mozambique. Sometimes, however, the conditions oblige peacekeepers to strive against impossible odds, in situations where there is no peace to keep.

In such situations, we at the United Nations understand the world's frustration, which in many ways reflects our own. But as UNPROFOR leaves Bosnia, it is time to pay tribute to the thousands of men and women at the front lines, the peacekeepers who can do only what the world asks and equips them to do.

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