Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Rules for U.N. peacekeepers are different in Somalia

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general of the United Nations, must have thought it was a fool-proof scheme:

Score a quick success with the relatively simple peacekeeping mission in Somalia and people might forget _ at least for a while _ about the international community's peacekeeping failure in Bosnia.

After all, if Presidents Bush and Clinton could pull off this magician's trick, why couldn't the United Nations? And since American soldiers had already done the hard part by pacifying the country for more than four months, it looked as if the United Nations could waltz into Somalia and pick up some of the credit without breaking into a sweat.

Well, it hasn't worked out quite the way Boutros-Ghali might have wanted.

The United Nations took over from Washington as sponsor of peacekeeping forces in Somalia only a month ago and already the east African nation is slipping back toward chaos. The U.N. chief's quick success, it appears, is turning into a very public embarrassment.

To get an idea of just how embarrassing, consider the last 10 days or so.

On June 5, a gang of thugs on the payroll of a wealthy Somali named Mohammed Farrah Aidid ambushed a contingent of Pakistani U.N. peacekeeping troops in Mogadishu, the capital, and killed 23 of them.

Clearly, the thugs couldn't be allowed to get away with this. Aidid and his gangsters had to pay, if only to prove that U.N. soldiers can, on occasion, be more menacing than your neighborhood Good Humor man.

So for the last several evenings, American planes and attack helicopters _ flying under orders of the overall U.N. commander, Gen. Cevik Bir of Turkey _ have been bombing and strafing neighborhoods in Mogadishu controlled by Aidid.

Not surprisingly, the Somali warlord and his people aren't happy about this. They've staged virulently anti-American demonstrations and, in the process, had a few more clashes with the U.N.'s Pakistani peacekeepers.

The Pakistanis weren't about to get picked off again the way they were on June 5. So this time, at the first sign of trouble _ some say even before _ they opened fire on the Somali demonstrators, killing more than a dozen and wounding scores more.

Again not surprisingly, Somalis were outraged and accused the United Nations of being more brutal than their former dictator or colonial overlords.

Not only that, the relief and humanitarian agencies the U.N. peacekeepers were supposed to be helping began asking whether Boutros-Ghali's United Nations was doing more harm than good in Somalia. The level of violence was going up instead of down, they noted, and delivering food to the hungry was getting more difficult, not less.

What these aid workers as well as Boutros-Ghali have to keep in mind is that clashes between the U.N. peacekeepers and Somalia's so-called warlords are just about inevitable. They're built into the situation by the rules of engagement established by the American peacekeepers and carried on by the United Nations.

The term, "rules of engagement," if you're not familiar with it, refers to a set of guidelines that spells out when a soldier can use his weapon and when he can't.

In Bosnia, for instance, the rules of engagement are very restrictive. The mandate of U.N. peacekeepers there is pretty much limited to escorting food and humanitarian relief convoys to make sure the aid gets through to those who need it.

The only time U.N. soldiers in Bosnia can use their weapons is if somebody shoots directly at them. In practice, that has meant that U.N. troops stand by while thousands of Bosnians are killed in the fighting.

The rules of engagement for Somalia are a lot looser. There, the peacekeeping troops have authority to use force not only to defend themselves, but to maintain order and put down roving gangs and militias headed by people like Aidid.

The mission in Somalia is much more aggressive. That's why violence like we've seen over the last few days is almost a certainty.

It's worth noting, by the way, that President Clinton was demanding similarly loose rules of engagement when he was thinking about sending American troops to help the U.N. peacekeepers in Bosnia.

When he was turned down, Clinton started thinking instead about sending U.S. troops to the former Yugoslav province of Macedonia, where there's no fighting _ at least not yet.