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Sunday, April 11, 1999 Published at 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK


Analysis: Testing times for peacekeeping

Nato ground troops: Concentrating on relief operations

By UN Correspondent Mark Devenport

The Kosovo crisis has once again raised questions about the reaction of the international community to human rights abuses and ethnic conflict.

"We must do something," is a familiar emotion for anyone who has looked at the harrowing pictures of the Kosovo Albanian refugees.

Kosovo: Special Report
People thousands of miles away from the conflict donate money to alleviate the refugees' plight. Many want more. They demand that those they view as aggressors should be stopped, by force if necessary.

Clearly, Nato agrees, but the trenchant protests made by Russia, China and India show that the leaders of half the world's people do not.

Using force to impose peace can never be a question of morality alone. Practical politics and the balance of military might inevitably come into play.

The old rule used to be that each nation could do as it wished within its own borders, but any incursion across a frontier would bring a response.

This was the raison d'etre of Operation Desert Storm, launched after Iraq invaded Kuwait. Armed with a UN resolution authorising "all necessary means ... to restore international peace and security", the US-led coalition determined to safeguard Kuwait's sovereignty.

But what happens when a country crumbles in on itself in a frenzy of feuding with horrendous consequences for non-combatants?

Somali debacle

[ image: Somalia: Cost US lives]
Somalia: Cost US lives
When famine and civil war ravaged Somalia, the world decided it "must do something". As US marines, operating with UN approval, waded up the beach at the Somali capital, Mogadishu, it seemed an easy task for the world's superpower.

But when Pakistani and American soldiers were killed in vicious fighting with Somali clans, suddenly the big powers became rather more circumspect about enforcing the peace.

Taking the credit for ending a famine or a war was one thing. But explaining to a mother in Louisiana or Lahore why her son was not coming home from a far off country was quite another.

The new caution undoubtedly contributed to the international community's failure to respond to the horrors of Rwanda in 1994. As half a million Tutsis were butchered by their Hutu neighbours, the UN found it impossible to raise money or recruit soldiers from its member countries.

In what is recognised as one of the darkest moments for modern peacekeeping, most UN troops were in fact withdrawn at the height of the genocide.

Bosnian lessons

[ image: Bosnia: Stretched peacekeeping to the limit]
Bosnia: Stretched peacekeeping to the limit
The internal collapse of another country, the former Yugoslavia, has tested the morality of peacekeeping to the limit.

As new countries carved themselves out from an old federation, the UN, the USA and Europe argued about the best way to respond.

In Bosnia, the world was slow to act as war broke out between Serbs, Muslims and Croats. UN peacekeepers were first used to safeguard aid supplies to beleaguered communities, then to offer Bosnian Muslims "safe havens" where they would be protected against Serb attack.

But once again, caution and disagreement meant the peacekeepers were too few in number and too lightly armed to carry out the international community's crusade.

Embarrassingly, some were taken hostage, while in the summer of 1995, Dutch peacekeepers stood by powerless as the Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica were murdered in what they had been told was a "safe haven".

A shaky intervention

Now in Kosovo, Nato is citing the lessons of Bosnia for its decision to intervene.

Legally, its position is shaky. The UN charter says regional agencies can act to enforce peace, but only if the UN Security Council has authorised them to do so.

The Council has not condemned Nato, but nor has it given the alliance its backing. Russia and China's vetoes make sure that will not happen.

If Yugoslavia was a major power like Russia or China, the international community would almost certainly restrict its response to harshly-worded statements.

But because Nato can do something, it has decided it "must do something". As with previous "peacemaking" operations, fear and caution - this time about committing ground troops - have limited the ability of the outsiders to achieve their stated aims.

All the while, as the refugees clog the roads and bombs inevitably kill non-combatants, the moral dilemmas of peacekeeping prove agonisingly difficult to resolve.

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