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UN: Security Council Must Empower Missions, Says Peacekeeping Pioneer

  • Robert McMahon

An early architect of United Nations peacekeeping operations, Brian Urquhart, expresses dismay at the state of such operations today. In an interview with RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon, Urquhart says the fault for many of UN's failures in recent years lies with the Security Council and its unwillingness to become fully engaged in crises.

United Nations, 24 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Sir Brian Urquhart played a central role in founding UN peacekeeping operations and served in senior UN positions for nearly four decades.

Urquhart remains active in the debate over reforms of the UN system, particularly in peacekeeping affairs. Our correspondent spoke with him before yesterday's (Wednesday) release of an expert panel's report calling for sweeping changes in peacekeeping operations. Urquhart expressed frustration with a system he says has been sending troops into dangerous missions underequipped and lacking the support of the Security Council.

The most recent example he cited was Sierra Leone, where rebels this spring violated a peace agreement and took hundreds of peacekeepers hostage. The secretary-general's appeal for a rapid-reaction force from major powers elicited a slow response from member states. Security was eventually restored, in part by the deployment of British paratroopers who had limited objectives but made a large impact.

Urquhart hailed the results of the British paratroopers, but said he was angered by the reaction of the major powers on the Security Council. He said they have shown a tendency to vote for peacekeeping missions to "appease their consciences" but then fail to provide full support.

"They [that is, the major powers] have never provided the UN with the resources or the financing or the infrastructure to launch difficult military operations. It's a miracle in my view that so few peacekeeping operations have been disasters."

The problems are particularly acute for UN missions in Africa. In Sierra Leone, for example, peacekeeping troops were not well enough equipped to deal with such a difficult mission. Primitive means of communication from the field added to the sense of exasperation at UN headquarters.

Urquhart and others contrast this with the more robust missions in the Balkans. NATO forces in Bosnia and Kosovo bolster the UN missions there. The UN force that oversaw the successful integration of Eastern Slavonia into Croatia in 1997 was backed by a guarantee of support from NATO forces in Bosnia if things went wrong.

Urquhart says operations envisioned for places such as the Congo, which is the size of Western Europe, are allotted much smaller resources to carry out peacekeeping.

"The trouble is the best soldiers in the world can't function without proper logistics, without weapons, without adequate training and without adequate communications -- and the UN operations don't have any of that. [They] are medieval in terms of equipment and technology."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said after the Sierra Leone crisis that there is now need to reconsider the basic assumptions under which peacekeeping operated during the Cold War. They include neutrality, the good faith of parties and the non-use of force. Annan says such assumptions don't work when parties to a conflict are neither sovereign states nor government leaders vulnerable to international pressure.

Urquhart recalls that in the early years of the Cold War, peacekeeping filled vacuums created by the decolonization process in places like Palestine and Congo. He said it also served to keep the nuclear superpowers -- the United States and Soviet Union -- out of regional conflicts.

Urquhart said this was particularly important in the Middle East, where some of the longest peacekeeping missions have been established.

"The two emergency forces in the Middle East initially were extremely successful and the second one in 1973 did a great deal to avert what could have been a very serious clash between the United States and the Soviet Union. And I think the peacekeeping force in Cyprus, though it's been there much too long, has provided stability in the island."

The expert panel report released Wednesday stresses the need for a standing force that can respond rapidly once the Security Council has approved a resolution for a UN mission. Urquhart strongly supports this, saying too often the UN has deployed to missions when firing has broken out again.

"If you're going to be serious, the organization which is responsible for dealing with a very nasty crisis has to be able to get people there in 24 to 48 hours, and furthermore it has to get people there who are loyal to the organization, who take its orders, who are not afraid of reasonable casualties."

The proposals of the UN reform panel do not mention the cost for such a force. Urquhart says the cost of retaining thousands of elite troops on stand-by duty would be expensive. But he says such an expense is dwarfed by the consequences of late action. He noted that the cost in human and humanitarian terms of the Rwanda violence has been staggering and continues to be registered to this day.