Underweight, underpowered and waiting for the clock to run out. At the end of last week, that seemed to describe the situation confronting 17 Canadian peacekeepers stranded at two observation points in Bosnia. Short of food and water, and suffering from a variety of ailments including skin infections and diarrhea, they were dependent upon Bosnian troops allowing either new supplies to get in—or the Canadian soldiers a chance to get out. Neither was happening as fast as Canadian officials had hoped.
But that description of the Canadian soldiers’ position also summed up the plight of
the government that sent them there—and that now appears to have little sense of what, if anything, to do next about the bloody mess that prevails in parts of the former Yugoslavia. The most the countries represented in the nearly 25,000-member United Nations peacekeeping contingent could do last week was to respond to the crisis by calling a conference for July 21. British Prime Minister John Major, who will host the meeting, called Prime Minister Jean Chrétien at week’s end to discuss the details. Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet, Defence Minister David Collenette and Gen. John De Chastelain, the chief of defence staff, all will attend. But even as Chrétien issued a statement publicly condemning the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims by Bosnian Serbs, senior officials admitted that they will go to London with no clear position on what should be
done next. Nor do they expect the conference to provide a clear resolution. “Virtually every option is on the table,” said one foreign affairs officer, from an eventual complete pullout of UN troops to the formation of a “peacemaking” force that would be prepared to engage in combat.
Within that wide framework, Canada is keeping its own options open. Collenette said Canada remains committed to keeping troops in the region for the near future because a withdrawal would be “fraught with even greater danger.” But no one was willing to be specific about how long Canada will remain, and other officials acknowledged that Ottawa might remove the 850 Canadians now stationed there, even if other UN troops remained. In fact, only one option is unacceptable. “We cannot,” said the same foreign affairs official, “regard the status quo as a continuing possibility.”
As always, the other factor matching military concerns in importance is the political element. On a global scale, all the countries involved recognize that it would be a disastrous blow to the UN’s reputation for it simply to abandon Bosnia. But domestically, within all of the countries—with the possible exn ception of France—there is little ¡ appetite for contributing troops I to a strike force that would inií evitably face counterstrikes and j the deaths of some of its members. Thankfully for Chrétien, his political opposition is diluted and divided between the stance of the Reform party, which is calling for a complete and immediate pullout of Canada’s troops, and the Bloc Québécois, which has generally supported UN actions.
As well, Canada’s contribution to the UN forces is small compared with the more numerous and better-armed French, British and Dutch forces. All that means, in turn, that Canada’s role at the London conference is likely to be limited. And even if firm decisions are made, it will take more time to implement them. Time, one federal official said with a sigh, is something that all of the countries participating in the UN peacekeeping force would like to have more of before making what are likely to be agonizing decisions. But for too many people in the killing fields of Bosnia, the clock has already run out.
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