Today's date:
Summer 1995

From Mogadishu to Sarajevo

Kofi Annan is Undersecretary General of the United Nations for Peacekeeping Operations. He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels at UN headquarters in New York in June just after the NATO bombing of the Serbs prompted their seizure of UN "blue-helmets" as hostages.

NPQ: How is it that so many of your peacekeeping troops were taken hostage? Wasn't it foreseen that NATO air strikes would lead to this?

KOFI ANNAN: Of course, we were aware this might happen. It was not the first time. In November and December of last year when we rendered Urdbina airport inoperative, the Bosnian Serbs took some 400 of our troops hostage. It took three weeks of hard negotiation to get them released, including an operational pause in the use of NATO air strikes.

Given the deployment of peacekeepers, hostage-taking is a risk we always run. Unlike combat troops, which are often concentrated, out for victory and utilizing the surprise element, peacekeepers are always out in the open and dispersed. They are there to be seen. They are deployed to have direct contact with the parties at conflict and are not equipped to fight. Let us not forget that there are 22,500 peacekeepers in Bosnia, most of whom were able to protect themselves from retaliation.

But, if an ultimatum is given to the Serbs to return all their weapons to a collection point by noon on a given day, there must be someone there to receive them. Such troops are inescapably vulnerable. We have now told the peacekeeping troops to be firm and assertive in defending their positions on the tactical level so that no more hostages can be taken. And a set of pressures are being placed on the Bosnian Serbs - including through Russian President Boris Yeltsin and (Serbian president Slobodan) Milosevic to release the hostages.

NPQ: Does Milosevic have that kind of influence anymore with the Bosnia Serbs?

ANNAN: Not on all of the Bosnian Seth leaders, but, yes, on General Ratko Mladic, their military commander.

NPQ: Hasn't the use of NATO air strikes against major Serb military targets pushed the United Nations across what former UN Bosnia commander General Michael Rose called "the Mogadishu line"- that is, as in Somalia earlier, from the role of peacekeeper to combatant? The Serbs have now declared the UN "the enemy." Your spokesman on the ground in Bosnia has called the Serbs "terrorists."

ANNAN: Let me put it this way. The use of force is not excluded in peacekeeping operations. Our rules of engagement allow the use of force in self-defense. Self-defense is also defined to include those situations where armed combatants prevent peacekeepers from carrying out their tasks.

What is important is the judicious, impartial use of force, meaning that whoever commits a violation must pay a price. If force is used or called in by the UN according to this impartiality, and the parties at conflict understand the rules of the game, then the Mogadishu line is not crossed.

Of course, everything depends on how the conflicting parties interpret our actions. In this case, the Serb interpretation was that we used air power to change the military balance on the ground to the advantage of the Bosnian government troops. This was not our intention at all. The same ultimatum was given to both sides. If the Bosnian Serbs had a bit good will and weren't as desperate as they seem to be, they would have seen the NATO strikes in the proper light. We have never used NATO air power in a combat role, but only to establish a credible threat. We have been very restrained in calling in NATO air strikes. The risk of peacekeeping is that you never know which shot from which gun of which one of your soldiers is going to be considered a declaration of war by one of the sides.

NPQ: Of course, this wasn't a shot - it was the bombing of a Serb ammunition depot that presumably would affect the balance of power on the ground.

ANNAN: Yes, this is the way the Bosnian Serbs interpreted it. They are desperate because they realize time is not on their side. And they have isolated themselves. The Bosnian government is improving its military strength and they have the numerical advantage. Over time, they will be able to defend themselves.

NPQ: Don't the Bosnian Serbs have an interest in breaking the impartiality of the UN -in drawing it across the Mogadishu line - because they believe this is the quickest way to force a UN withdrawal, as in Somalia?

ANNAN: I am not so sure. They must certainly worry that if the UN troops were to leave, the way would be cleared for more extensive bombing if they were to continue shelling the civilian enclaves. So, in a strange sort of way, they do not want the UN out. And this gives us leverage.

NPQ: Britain and France are sending reinforcements now to protect their own peacekeepers already deployed. While this is understandable, it has led to criticism that the vaunted "reconfiguration" of UN forces in Bosnia really amounts to setting up "safe havens" for the peacekeepers at the expense of the civilian populations they were sent to help.

ANNAN: Obviously a situation where we pull back and concentrate forces only to defend ourselves-which to some extent is what happened in Somalia- is what we want to avoid. The Security Council has made it clear we will not abandon the "safe havens." What we need is a greater balance that will enable us to protect our troops while at the same time carry out our humanitarian mission.

For example, because we were not in full combat order, we could not adequately defend the collection points where the combatants had surrendered their weapons. People were thus able to shoot their way in and out, taking back their weapons. This is the riskiest position for the peacekeepers, and that is where most of the hostages were taken. Reinforcements and a reconfiguration of forces would enable us to prevent that in the future. We also need reinforcements for deterrence, to show force in order not to have to use force. When the other side senses you arc equipped, prepared and capable of defending yourself, the temptation to attack and take hostages will be limited.

NPQ: Do the reinforcements from Britain and France send that message to the Serbs?

ANNAN: Yes, and more. What is at stake now is not only the viability and credibility of the UN, but the honor of the big powers themselves and their military forces. The message that is now being sent and being meant is one of firmness and resolve. The message is that the international community is not going to pick up and run; you are pushing yourselves into a corner where you are not only at war with the Bosnian government, but the entire international community. So you better think twice. I am convinced for this reason that something will give and they will soon take on a more reasonable attitude.

NPQ: Lord Owen, the former EU peace envoy, said "the voice of the troop-contributing countries must be given more weight now in the UN than those who have stayed on the sidelines"- meaning more voice to France and Britain over the US, which insisted on the most recent NATO air attack. Do you agree that they, not the US, ought to take the lead?

ANNAN: Let me put it this way. The French and the British are taking the lead. They are the top troop contributors and they are permanent members of the Security Council. But what is important is that we are together there in Bosnia as a UN force. If the situation gets messy, we must work together to get everybody out as we did in Somalia. We must avoid a situation where each nation circles its own wagons and protects its own troops.

NPQ: Even with the troop reinforcements from France and Britain, will there be enough peacekeepers to fulfill the mandate of humanitarian assistance and the protection of six safe havens? Lord Owen insists the UN forces are "irresponsibly unmatched" with their ever-expanding mandate.

ANNAN: I must agree this has been the case. There are three ways the reinforcements can be used: to reduce the vulnerability of the troops already in Bosnia; to make it possible for UN peacekeepers to more effectively implement their present mandate, as you outlined; to expand the mandate further so that UN forces can be more assertive, for example to "push through" with force in order to deliver humanitarian supplies if a road is blocked, or to keep open the airport if it is closed. The Security Council will decide in the coming days whether or not to expand the mandate to encompass the latter option of a more assertive stance. As it stands now, we do not have enough troop strength to effectively meet such a mandate, even with the reinforcements.

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