This Tattered Chrysalis
Globocops / NUCLEAR WEAPONS
When I think of peacekeeping I think of Fatimat, who has waited for it all her life. In the 'primitive days' before the United Nations took over a prime lot on New York's East River, she had no inkling of it. No blue-helmeted troops arrived when she was driven from her village as a student in the 1920s, as the Bolsheviks burned and looted southern Chechnya to root out anti-communist 'traitors'.
Decades later, in 1944, peacekeepers were merely a gleam in a diplomat's eye when the mother of five was bundled into a rail car and deported from her family home, as Stalin's henchmen cleansed the Caucasus of their Muslim 'enemies', killing up to one-third of the Chechen people.
But when the UN mounted its first lifesaving operation in 1948, Fatimat might have hoped her fortunes had changed. Living in a rebellious territory that had never accepted Russian rule and was sporadically punished for its uprisings, she may have expected that Chechens would win a champion on the world stage.
She was to be bitterly disappointed: in 1994, when Russia sent troops to reclaim the self-declared 'independent' republic and flattened parts of villages with metal-spewing cluster bombs, not one UN member suggested intervention.
I last saw her, a 95-year-old woman, slumped on a rock at the border with neighbouring Ingushetia in the midst of an even more devastating new war with Russia. She had crossed this border so many times in her long life, clutching what few possessions she could muster.
It was snowing that December day last year, and she was wearing a cotton house-dress covered with a wet woollen shawl. On her feet were backless slippers. Beside her was a plastic bag with some underwear, cooking pots and family photos.
'Where are the peacekeepers?' she asked me. 'Are they coming? They came to help the Kosovars. Aren't we worth helping? Are we not human beings to them?'
Having spent three years at the concrete-and-glass fortress in mid- Manhattan, I hadn't the heart to tell her the truth. Inside the UN's massive hallways being cynical and tough-minded came easily: the organization was no supranational knight errant, but the sum of all its flawed, feuding parts. They included the Security Council, whose five permanent members held vetoes that could stop any peacekeeping action in its tracks. Attempting to pass any resolution that would irritate one of the powerful 'Perm Five' was as futile as calling for an end to world poverty tomorrow.
Yet from this tattered chrysalis a kind of peacekeeping philosophy had evolved. Some 53 operations had been mounted, with varying degrees of success, in countries as far-flung as Bosnia and Sierra Leone.
Play by the rules
Often the operations were tacit agreements by the great powers that it wasn't in their interests for Ruritania and Obscuria to continue battling it out. Protestations of favouritism by other strife-torn countries or minorities that failed to fit the format were met with weary sighs and pro-forma speeches of sympathy as the beleaguered representatives were shown the door.
Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, once a diplomatic giant as Soviet Foreign Minister, saw the results most dramatically when his pleas for help in stemming civil war in his tiny country won only a few polite, embarrassed shrugs, the diplomatic equivalent of the bum's rush. Shevardnadze learned the hard way that the New World Order wasn't one of equality and humanity, but a new version of the old expediency. Small countries - and aspiring wannabees - had no more hope of help than in the past, unless there was rare accord among the permanent members that nobody's toes would be trodden on in the process.
While the world body continued plodding the old peacekeeping paths, the most critical problems, increasingly, came from those 'out-of-bounds' territories that did not qualify as nations but were subjected to the full force of national armies, like the Chechens. Their people may have been fiercely devoted to separatist aims - anathema to the international community - but the response to their struggle was disproportionate enough to jeopardize thousands of innocent civilians.
When Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic attempted to crush the restive ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the Western members of the Security Council were full of dread. They had already seen the terrible killing fields of Bosnia and had been humiliated by their own slowness and ineptness in intervening there.
With reluctance, they acted. NATO would be the hammer that bashed home the message that some human-rights violations were unacceptable - or more unacceptable than others. But Russia's bristling rejection of the attack on its traditional ally was a chilling factor. The political fear of losing Western soldiers, coupled with nervousness about alienating Moscow, meant that there was a curious manic-depressive aspect to NATO. Quarrelling behind the scenes, the allies assumed enthusiastic poses for the daily media bites but slumped into near-despair at how it would all end.
If the West was afraid of a head-to-head confrontation with a relatively minor autocrat like Milosevic, it was clear that a clash with a major power such as Russia was out of the question.
So when the war again came to Chechnya the world stood by and watched Fatimat and her kinfolk streaming over the borders, leaving their ruined homes and dead relatives behind them. Russian President Vladimir Putin continued his efforts to 'crush' and 'eradicate' people he denounced as terrorists, and proudly resisted any urging to make peace.
This is the crux of the dilemma that confronts the UN today.
First, there is no agreement on when human-rights violations have gone too far and what should then be done about it. Indeed, the question is usually 'too far for whom?' In Chechnya the Russian Government insisted that its bombing was equal to the NATO raids on Yugoslavia, and that the East and West should simply agree to disagree. Responsibility cannot be dodged so casually. Formal agreement is needed on the UN's role in identifying human-rights violations as well as the appropriate response.
Second, the rules of engagement need to change drastically before any UN intervention is possible inside a sovereign country. So far, NATO has been used as a fighting force in the Balkans, while UN peacekeepers have largely acted under the old rules of invitation to monitor an agreed division between sides.
Third, even in the event of an aggressive new role for UN peacekeepers, the world body has no army. For the UN to have a standing army - as an increasing number of international voices are suggesting - it needs staff, funds and a body to act as the ultimate arbiter of accountability.
Here, ironically, the Western countries are most reluctant to tread. For years the US has bridled at any hint that the UN could act autonomously. It intends to increase neither the power nor the money flowing to the world body and must be constantly coerced into paying its yearly dues. Other Western countries have the same reservations and the Europeans are also distracted by the idea of forming their own military force without American participation.
Law and order
That might anger UN advocates who felt that the world body's role was being usurped. But it would overcome one of the major problems of an international peace force: while the West might like the idea of a mainly Third World force riding off to do battle with some of the nastier African warlords - thereby relieving it of any responsibility - under-funded, poorly trained and ill-equipped international forces would merely make matters worse.
However, a European force, even if it ever got off the ground, would be subject to the same squabbling and in-fighting that plagues the European Union's political agenda. And it would be little comfort to the many minority groups under attack throughout the world in areas that are politically inexpedient to 'invade' with democracy's latest warriors.
Unless there is a radical change in the root-and-branch philosophy that underlines the handling of international conflicts, UN and international peacekeeping will continue to falter. For Fatimat, and others like her, there are no knights in blue helmets coming over the near horizon.
is European Bureau Chief of the Toronto Star covering the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. She reported from the UN Security Council during the Gulf War.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.