United appeal for a no zone

June 16, 1995

UN peacekeepers may be simply delaying the inevitable but they could do much more with the right support from senior planners, James Smith believes. Last September, I interviewed Canadian peacekeeping troops in Croatia. Their stories were fascinating, depressing, intriguing, and frightening. In the dramas taking place in Bosnia, the plight of peacekeepers has again come to light, but before any decisions are made about what ought to happen next, perhaps it is worth remembering what peacekeepers are facing on the ground.

First, UN forces tend to be undermanned, underequipped, and highly frustrated. Canadian forces have had to deal with such minor irritations as UN-supplied "photobiodegradable" sandbags and having their phone lines cut up to 60 times daily, as well as more serious problems such as having to negotiate the release of personnel taken hostage, supply blockades, death threats, and returning confiscated weapons to the belligerents. This included having to return cleared mines.

As one corporal recalls: "There's an engineer, he started marking mines, because he was tired of pulling them out and giving them back . . . he says he's pulled the same one 12 times." (Confiscated weapons are often used by the UN as bargaining chips, trading them in "exchange" for freedom of movement, for example).

Second, ceasefire agreements do not consider local conditions. The agreement for the Krajina, for example, failed to include a ban on armoured personnel carriers, heavy machine guns, or anti-tank systems. The ceasefire lines were drawn around a local Serb village, thus placing it inside the ceasefire zone (and giving local Serbian forces an excuse to enter the zone and "protect" it).

The local Canadian base, on the other hand, was not placed inside the zone, but in Serbian Krajina, where local forces were in a position to cut it off. Canadian logistic supply lines ran through a narrow Croatian corridor, again susceptible to local forces.

Finally, there is a need to coordinate UN forces and give them similar training and equipment. There are strong cultural differences between UN contingents on the ground, some of whom are seen to be acting unprofessionally (this can include involvement in black marketeering or even "sharing" observation posts with parties to the war.) Moreover, contingent commanders vary tremendously in their interpretations of the mandate and in their responses to conflict situations; local forces exploit these differences to the full. Peacekeeping is seen by the forces on the ground as very different from normal military operations, and there is a strong belief that they need support and training in such skills as low-level negotiations and in dealing peacefully with angry crowds of civilians. Given all of this, it is important to understand that UNPROFOR is no longer peacekeeping - if it ever was in the first place. It is being asked to be a peacekeeper, which implies the consent of the belligerents. Unfortunately, these soldiers are dealing with a generally hostile set, who obey higher authority grudgingly, and sometimes not at all. As one local Canadian commander phrased it: "There really is an issue of timing here. Somebody should have asked if these people were ready for blue helmets to come in". As one Serbian irregular commented to a Canadian peacekeeper: "The only thing you people are doing here is delaying the inevitable."

The peacekeepers feel the UN approach to date has been "wishy-washy", and that there were many missed opportunities. The question is always "What can we do now?" Soldiers on the ground are very clear about the answer. They see two clear options: "Either the UN steps in big enough and mean enough or we leave, and let them go at it."

In the words of one corporal: "I think the biggest problem is that there's all these deals going on everywhere to keep them fairly happy with the United Nations. Both sides want to kill each other, and any time you tell anybody they can't do something they want to do they're not going to like you, so you can't make everybody happy. I say let them be mad at us for a year, let them hate us, let the conflicts happen, let the soldiers deal with it because we're there and that's what we're there for."

The peacekeepers would like to be able to point to a ceasefire agreement and say: "Your government signed this on your behalf. We are here to make sure it is adhered to." If they are given a mandate to keep a zone free of weapons, then they want to have the ability and the permission to do just that - not to be constrained politically, have weapons and mines returned to belligerents, have their movements restricted, or be unable to protect civilians. A Canadian commander pointed out that he would certainly not throw away soldiers' lives, but the UN must be more forceful - "and I don't mean more violent, necessarily, but more forceful".

It is an important distinction for this type of operation, and recent events offer support for the use of a more "forceful" response. Here, it means not trying to stop the war completely, but having the ability to keep humanitarian aid routes open, and to make safe areas truly safe.

About two weeks ago, French Lt. Col. Eric Roussel was told by Bosnian Serbs that if he did not give back Serb prisoners, two French peacekeepers being held hostage would be shot. The peacekeepers were on their knees. "We heard them shouting 'They will kill us'." But Colonel Roussel took a gamble, and made a stand: "We said 'No'." The gamble paid off, and the French peacekeepers were released.

I was told by one corporal that a common tactic was for Krajina Serbs to try to occupy old Canadian positions, but the Canadians responded in a way that previous contingents had not: "We said 'No' - we're not building defensive positions for you. They're still ours. We're just not using them right now."

"We said no." Those three words can help to sum up a policy for Bosnia which is rarely followed, but almost always effective. If the parties to the conflict respect one thing, it is strength. This does not have to mean violence but it would appear that wherever UN forces have said "no", they have been allowed to carry out their mandate.

Other contingents and the international community, are saying "yes" - to restrictions on freedom of movement, on the taking of hostages, on the retrieval of heavy weapons from UN sites, ethnic cleansing and attacks on civilians and peacekeepers. As one Canadian peacekeeper phrased it, "We had a good start but somebody along the way started making deals for things we should have just used a show of force for, and now we've lost everything. We are now ineffective."

The question of whether to pull troops out depends on the answer to the question, "Are they doing any good?" If one believes that "doing good" is impossible given all the difficulties then the argument can be made for their withdrawal. If, on the other hand, one argues that some ceasefires have held, mines have been cleared, civilians protected and a degree of normal life brought back in some places, then the argument can be made for retaining their presence. But if they stay, more support and clear instructions regarding the use of force and violence must be given. Peacekeepers' views should be supported: it is time to say "no" - or leave.

James D. D. Smith lectures at the University of Bradford and is author of Stopping Wars (Westview, 1995).

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