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Hither and Yon

In 1950, UN forces fought back; Of what use are today’s ‘peackeepers’?

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The United Nations as a force for peace has never lived up to the hopes implicit in the name.
You can’t blame a succession of secretary-generals for the failures of the UN The current secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, may seem bland and ineffective, but there’s not much he can do when each of the five permanent members of the Security Council, including China, Russia, Britain and France as well as the U.S., has the power to veto anything.
The ineffectiveness of the UN shows up in the record of peacekeeping forces. One notorious example was an agreement by a Dutch peacekeeping force in July 1995 to yield to Bosnian Serb demands to expel 5,000 Bosnian Muslims from the UN compound at Srebrenica. In July, nine years later, a Dutch court ruled that the Dutch force had indeed surrendered 300 of them — men and boys who were among 8,000 Bosnian Serbs shot to death in the worst case of genocide in Europe since World War II.
What would have happened if the Dutch peacekeepers had stood their ground and refused? Would the Bosnian Serbs under their bloodthirsty commander, Ratko Mladic, have attacked the Dutch in a battle that would have risked retaliation by European armies? We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Dutch failed to show the kind of heroism that was needed under such terrible circumstances.
The weakness of UN peacekeepers was demonstrated most recently when the commander of the UN peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights straddling the border between Syria and Israel denounced Filipino troops as “unprofessional” and “cowardly” for resisting demands by Syrian rebels to lay down their arms.
The top commander, Indian army Gen. Iqbal Singh Singha, said the Filipinos defied his order to yield to the rebels in what he had hoped would be a grand bargain for winning freedom for 43 Fijian army soldiers. The Fijians, also part of the UN force in the Golan Heights, had given up right away to rebel demands and remain in their hands.
The question raised by this and other episodes is why arm UN military peace-keepers at all if they’re supposed to surrender whenever surrounded by seemingly superior forces. While peace-keepers are not expected to risk their lives as front-line troops, do they not have an obligation to remain firm in the face of demands simply to give up to rebels with a reputation for terrorism, including the beheading of infidels?
Those are questions that the Philippines foreign affairs secretary, Albert del Rosario, is asking UN Secretary General Ban in a letter citing rules of engagement giving members of the UN force in the Golan Heights the “inherent right to defend themselves.” They had no choice but to fight, said Del Rosario, when challenged by the Syrian rebels.
After 35 Filipino troops in one position got out without firing a shot, 40 more in another position exchanged sporadic rifle fire with the rebels for several hours before escaping without a scratch — or loss of weapons. Far from praising them for their heroism, Gen. Singha claimed “the non-professional actions of the Filipino troops have endangered the lives of the Fijian soldiers.”
This case provokes the question, what’s the point of having peacekeepers if they’re forbidden from defending themselves?
On a broader scale, what can the UN manage to do to stop Islamic forces from their reign of terror over large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq? Amid efforts to form a coalition to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, no one seems to have thought of a role for UN peacekeepers where theoretically they are most needed.
The UN has not always been so ineffective. In June 1950, nearly five years after its founding in 1945 in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the UN Security Council voted to condemn North Korea for invading South Korea. Then, translating words into action, the UN Security Council agreed to use military force to stop the North Korean onslaught.
The UN role in the Korean War is controversial. It’s easy to say that the forces deployed by the United Nations during the conflict were part of a public relations gesture, a cover behind which the United States waged the war to save the South. The fact is, however, that 16 nations participated on the South Korean side. The exploits of the British in particular are a significant part of any history of the war.
The Chinese seat on the Security Council at the time was held by the “Nationalist” China regime of Chiang Kai-shek, which less than a year earlier had fled to Taiwan after its defeat by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong. The Soviet Union, protesting the refusal to give the seat to Mao’s fledgling government, did not attend those crucial Security Council sessions.
Probably the UN is more badly needed now than at any other time in its history. However, it seems that never again will the UN be able to act as effectively as it did in June 1950.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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