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The UN as Fig Leaf.

As 500 United Nations peacekeepers handed over their weapons, uniforms and vehicles to lightly armed thugs in Sierra Leone, many observers ruefully declared, "The UN has done it again." And indeed it had. Once again the organization allowed itself to be used by the United States and other major powers to provide a thin blue fig leaf to cover their refusal to commit their resources to a solution. The purpose of the fig leaf, of course, is to enable the United States and its allies to say that the UN is handling the Sierra Leone problem, as they avoid the risk of their own troops becoming casualties and, in the case of the United States, asking Congress for funds.

The Security Council did at least authorize a peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone, in contrast to Rwanda, where then-US ambassador Madeleine Albright fought a successful action to prevent any reinforcements from going to the skeleton force there. On the other hand, Washington has not sent any cash for the Sierra Leone operation. Indeed, in an uncanny instant replay of Rwanda, where the United States wanted $12 million to fly some secondhand armored personnel carriers into Kigali, the Pentagon demanded $27 million to fly Bangladeshi reinforcements into Freetown. The UN does not have that kind of money, not least because Washington is $1.77 billion in arrears to the organization.

In Sierra Leone, there is, admittedly, a lot of blame to go around. The UN and international "community" let things go absolutely to hell. It let President Ahmad Kabbah win a dubious election with funds looted from the UN Development Program. Then it permitted various coups to take place and did not fund the Nigerians adequately when they took up the peacekeeping burden. The point of peacekeeping missions should be to serve as a guarantee of international commitment. The model is the unsung but entirely successful US-staffed UN operation on the Macedonian/Serbian border during the war in Bosnia and Croatia. That small but timely force averted what many considered to be the almost inevitable spread of the conflict southward. UN peacekeeping missions need not always be combat-ready battle groups; they can at least serve as a tripwire that threatens to bring down the wrath of the international community on violators.

But UN planners seem not to have learned a thing from Bosnia. The mandate of the UN troops in Sierra Leone was to keep a peace that was as unsustainable as it was unprincipled. With heavy US pressure, the Lome peace accord between the government and the rebels guaranteed amnesty to rebel leader Foday Sankoh, whose followers in the Revolutionary United Front had decided that if they couldn't win the hearts and minds of the Sierra Leoneans, they would take their hands and feet instead. It also gave Sankoh a place in the government and control of the diamond mines, so he could be assured of money to buy arms.

The Lome accord, including the amnesty, was made necessary by the unwillingness of the permanent members of the Security Council to commit resources to combating the RUF. As a result, the UN was forced to launch the same kind of undermanned, underequipped operation that has failed so often in the past. Sankoh, not unnaturally, drew his own scornful conclusions. "The UN is free to send 20,000 troops to Sierra Leone, but who would scare a pregnant woman with a dead penis?" he asked--just before he was arrested with British help.

One benefit of the humiliation of the peacekeepers in Sierra Leone is that it may have aborted the even more ill-augured UN mission in Congo. There should be no more blue fig leaves to cover the unwillingness of the major powers. If the UN sends any such force in the future, there should be a peace to keep--or it should have the political, financial and military wherewithal to enforce it against the war criminals.

Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent.
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Title Annotation:United Nations peacekeeping efforts
Author:WILLIAMS, IAN
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jun 12, 2000
Words:661
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