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UN: Swifter Standby Peacekeeping Forces Ready To Serve

A Nordic-led initiative has announced itself ready to provide the United Nations with peacekeeping forces that can respond to crises quicker than current UN forces. The new brigade, which has begun consultations with UN military planners, emerges at a time when the UN is appealing to members to help fund and staff its swiftly growing number of peacekeeping operations. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 25 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The multinational Standby High Readiness Brigade, known by the acronym SHIRBRIG, was first promoted by the Danish government about five years ago after some high-profile failures of UN peacekeeping in Somalia and Bosnia.

Encouraged by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Denmark and a small group of nations have moved ahead with planning. The operating principle is that a small number of states would be trained to the same standard, using similar procedures and equipment. They would take part in exercises at regular intervals to make up a force that would be available for deployment at short notice.

The participating states, all of which have extensive experience in peacekeeping, have formed a working group and have moved to the point of near readiness. Participating countries are Romania, Poland, Argentina, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the four Nordic countries. Among the countries that have signed on as observers are the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia and Jordan.

Michael Lollesgaard is an official at the Danish mission to the UN in New York who has worked closely with the SHIRBRIG initiative. He says UN peacekeeping operations have been hindered in the past by the amount of time it takes diverse military units to train together and adapt to the mission area.

But Lollesgaard says the SHIRBRIG peacekeepers would already have familiarity with each other and could be put in the field much sooner.

"The commanders know each other. They have the same procedures. They can talk with each other on the radio. They know what to do in specific situations. All the logistics have been sorted out beforehand. It's important to remember that the units are still in their homelands. But they know the goal."

Lollesgaard said the new brigade is designed to save the UN money as well because participating states will pay for the training of their units on their home soil until the time of deployment.

Under current peacekeeping procedures, those serving in UN operations are paid from a special UN budget supported by member states, for their work as peacekeepers. That budget is currently in arrears of more than $3 billion.

Lollesgaard stressed the limited scope of SHIRBRIG. The brigade peacekeepers will only be used on a case-by-case basis under Chapter Six of the UN charter, which provides for peacekeeping but not peace enforcing. Peace enforcement is covered under Chapter Seven deployments. The brigade is intended to be deployed only up to six months. It will not be considered for routine rotation of forces in connection with ongoing missions.

A group of SHIRBRIG defense ministers is scheduled to gather in New York late next month to discuss the next steps of the initiative. UN officials would not say when the brigade will be ready to be deployed.

William Phillips is chief of military planning in the UN's department of peacekeeping operations. He told our correspondent that in theory, the SHIRBRIG peacekeepers would save the UN time because they would be ready to move quicker than such units normally do. But he was cautious about when a SHIRBRIG force would be ready to carry out a UN mission.

"We will continue to look at them and see if they fit the mission. Like anything else, they have to fit the task and the mission and if they do, then of course they would be one option."

Annan was supportive of the initiative in an address on peacekeeping delivered in Bangkok earlier this month. He said the UN's current standby arrangements have not proven themselves to be enough to meet the challenge of rapid deployment. He noted that SHIRBRIG has gone further than simply earmarking troops or other equipment that might be available to the UN

Phillips, the UN military planner, says the proposed brigade has emerged during a time of suddenly heightened peacekeeping activity for the world body. "After the problems in Rwanda and Somalia and Bosnia, you saw a sort of a dip in the activity of UN peacekeeping in particular. What you're seeing now is that many of these conflicts that have been going on for a while -- and I'm speaking about the Congo and Sierra Leone and these sorts of things -- that there's not many organizations in the world that can deal with them and the UN basically in many cases is the only real fallback and so what you're seeing is a proliferation of missions over the period of 1999 and probably 2000."

Though still untested in action, the new brigade could serve as an important prototype for a new kind of rapid responsiveness on the part of the UN at a time when it finds itself under heavy demand to mediate and keep the peace around the world.