The U.N. Should Pick Its Spots


London. -- If the Orangemen's marches in Belfast undo the Northern Ireland peace initiative and the U.N. peacekeepers are forced to withdraw from Bosnia's Muslim enclaves, it will be more proof to a growing band of pessimists that humankind, having scraped by thus far, is finally heading for disaster. Even those who look alike, live alike and, in their private lives, love alike, can't resolve their differences peacefully.

The contrary view is taken by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which finds "efforts to resolve some of the world's most intractable conflicts [coming] to fruition." In the last year of the Cold War, there were 36 major armed conflicts. Every year since the number has dropped. In 1993 it was down to 33, last year 31, and this year looks like being even lower.

Conclusion: The world is a better place.

The Cold War was no time of a frozen peace. It stirred things up, not just in Korea and Vietnam but in almost every part of the Third World. If you lined up the world's population and singled out every 300th person, shot him in the head and dumped the bodies one on top of another, you'd have a pile of corpses 3,600 miles high. This was the casualty pile of the Cold War years.

Still, profound and serious questions about international peacekeeping arise. The United Nations rarely intervened in the Cold War years, partly because of the limited areas in which the superpowers could agree, and partly because everyone knew what they're learning today -- you can't be everywhere when everywhere is 30 or 40 simultaneous conflicts. But where the U.N. mounted peacekeeping operations, the results were rather positive.

Why do we now expect the U.N. to intervene on all and every occasion and draw the conclusion that if it doesn't it is impotent?

Why, for example, has the international community not intervened in the the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh or the war between the Myanmar government and the Mong Tai army? What about Chad, Cambodia, Colombia, Peru, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and Turkey? These 10 current wars have a common ingredient -- the media show only passing interest in them and thus most of us know very little about them.

Yugoslavia is not even one of the half-dozen worst conflicts in terms of casualties. During 1994 there were more deaths Angola, Algeria, Turkey, Afghanistan, Yemen and Rwanda. What is so special about the needs (and appeal) of the former Yugoslavia that, say, Sierra Leone, doesn't have? My only conclusion is a combination of factors is involved: white European skins, the brief one-hour flying time for film crews from a comfortable base in western Europe and the anxiety that the Yugoslav tragedy may be reproduced in the former Soviet Union on a much larger scale.

We need to start re-defining our criteria for intervention. The time has probably come to move back to the Cold War adage of the U.N. -- only intervene when there is "the consent of the parties." Except on the rarest of occasions the U.N. cannot force a peace. When it has tried to do, as with the American-led firefights in Somalia and the NATO bombings in Bosnia, disasters ensue.

The U.N. should go in, not when the media rouse our interest, as seems to be the case nowadays, but when the people at war don't any longer want war and wish to find a face-saving escape, or when there is a way of intervening before the war bubble bursts. Then peacekeepers will do well.

Our violent world does seem to be slowly improving. If we pick and choose carefully, as circumstances compelled the U.N. to do during the Cold War, we'll probably make more progress in building up the credibility and effectiveness of an institution the world will always need.

Over time, with more accent on pre-emptive mediation -- as is now being so well done in Burundi, and as should have been done in the former Yugoslavia -- we could perhaps see the world's conflicts at any one time coming down to single figures.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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