By Minh T. Vo, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
An extraordinary meeting is taking place at the UN this week. To lower the curtain on a month of heavily focused UN attention on Africa, presidents and foreign ministers from 10 African countries have gathered to plot a road map to peace for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Crucial to connecting the dots on that road map is a plan to send a peacekeeping mission to uphold a duct-taped peace agreement in the war-torn Congo. As the UN Security Council debates the size of its impending deployment there, it also must consider a draft resolution calling for an increase in troops from 6,000 to 11,000 in Sierra Leone.
With some 18,000 soldiers billeted around the world, the UN is far from its 1993 high of 80,000. But compared to last January's 13,000, this year's figures suggest a new stage in peacekeeping.
This surge in activity comes after a decade of extremes, and will be the biggest peacekeeping test for the UN since its debacles in Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia nearly five years ago. In the early 1990s, the world body optimistically felt that it could tackle the world's hot spots by flexing its muscles. But as recent reports commissioned by the UN indicate, those efforts failed badly.
Following on the heels of the disastrous US-led 1993 mission in Somalia, where a US soldier was dragged through the streets, the Security Council actually decreased its military presence to a mere 270 in Rwanda as the massive genocide began to unfold. Last December, a UN-commissioned report chastised the world body's 1994 mission in Rwanda for not being "planned, dimensioned, deployed or instructed in a way which provided for a proactive and assertive role in dealing with a peace process in serious trouble."
A year after the Rwanda episode, UN troops failed to stop the slaughter of thousands of people in the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica in Bosnia. A UN-panel report issued in November points out that UN soldiers there, like their counterparts in Rwanda, were outnumbered and outgunned.
Some UN officials insist that Bosnia and Rwanda have taught the world body that it must back up its missions with adequate force. A year ago, a request for 11,000 troops for Sierra Leone "would not have been saleable to the Security Council," says Bernard Miyet, the head of the UN's peacekeeping department. "They accept it today because they realize that the UN needs a clear mandate and clear backing."
But some political analysts wonder if past tragedies have really changed the political will of UN member states. Congo, they say, will test commitments.
"What they have learned about intervention may be quite different from what they are willing to do," says Ruth Wedgwood, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York. "They've learned that you need a strong force, but I don't know if they are willing to accept the expense and possible casualties."
Congo presents the UN with the enormous task of keeping watch over 900,000 square miles of unstable territory, which has housed troops from eight neighboring countries in the past year. And given that the ceasefire has not stopped all the fighting, some analysts wonder what UN peacekeepers would do if the accord fully broke down.
The Rwanda report charged the UN mistakenly focused on a deteriorating peace agreement and failed to assess the ensuing massacres. "The UN mission was predicated on the success of the peace process. There was no fall-back, no contingency planning," it states.
Success in Congo will largely depend on the strength of the mandate under negotiation at the Security Council right now, says William Zartman, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has recommended a 5,500-strong force. But diplomats here insist that the UN will not send in its soldiers until Congolese government forces, rebels, and foreign troops observe the ceasefire agreement.
As UN officials often point out, peacekeepers work only when there is peace to keep; the idea that the world body can end a raging conflict died with its disastrous involvement in Somalia. Instead, regional groups will have to take on interventions to end a war.
The resulting reliance on regional forces leaves some countries at a disadvantage. East Timor had Australia and Kosovo had NATO, for example. African countries do not have equally strong regional powers.
"What happened in Sierra Leone was worse than what happened in East Timor and Kosovo," says Sierra Leone's Ambassador Ibrahim Kamara. "We also believe the UN should have been involved earlier because the UN was established to maintain global peace."
But the UN's funds fall short of its lofty mandate. Indeed, while the US this month has placed the spotlight on the conflicts in Africa, it wants to reduce its share of the peacekeeping budget from 31 percent to 25 percent.
Despite its shortcomings, the UN does play a distinct role in international security, according to Mr. Turk. It is the only world body set up for that purpose.