WORLD

RENAISSANCE AT THE UN

THE UN IS ENJOYING NEWLY RESTORED CREDIBILITY FOR SOLVING INTERNATIONAL DISPUTES

JOHN BIERMAN October 3 1988
WORLD

RENAISSANCE AT THE UN

THE UN IS ENJOYING NEWLY RESTORED CREDIBILITY FOR SOLVING INTERNATIONAL DISPUTES

JOHN BIERMAN October 3 1988

RENAISSANCE AT THE UN

WORLD

THE UN IS ENJOYING NEWLY RESTORED CREDIBILITY FOR SOLVING INTERNATIONAL DISPUTES

The atmosphere was hectic in the executive offices of UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar. In a flurry of activity typical of the start of the General Assembly every fall, senior aides and their secretaries came and went, mingling with a stream of ambassadors riding the elevators to see Pérez de Cuéllar in his 38th-floor aerie at the UN’s New York City headquarters. But last week, there was an added dimension to the hustle and bustle. In a vivid demonstration of the UN’s newly restored credibility as a mechanism for solving international disputes, Pérez de Cuéllar was preparing to fly to Pretoria for talks aimed at ending South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia. And with an impressive array of other major settlements either behind him or in prospect—involving Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, Cyprus and the Western Sahara—the 68-year-old Pérez de Cuéllar was obviously tired. “I am a little exhausted by the number of subjects which are moving at the same time,” he conceded in an interview with Maclean’s. “But one has to take advantage of the momentum.”

As he spoke, diplomats at Canada’s UN mission—where Quebec lawyer Yves Fortier took over in September as ambassador— were finalizing plans for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s visit to the 43rd annual General Assembly this week (page 18). There, Mulroney will share the limelight with such world leaders as Ronald Reagan and Presi-

dent François Mitterrand of France. But Mulroney will also get star billing, because his government now provides more troop assistance to UN peacekeeping operations than any other member nation. And if Pérez de Cuéllar’s trip to South Africa, and related negotiations elsewhere, prove successful, Canada will soon find itself even more deeply involved as a peacekeeper—as part of a 10,000-member UN operation in Namibia.

Canada already has 570 troops with the UN in Cyprus, 520 signals specialists and truce observers near and on the ceasefire line between Iran and Iraq, and truce observers in Afghanistan, the Golan Heights and the Sinai desert. In fact, many UN officials and outside observers say that the UN-sponsored IranIraq ceasefire might have foundered if Canada had not so rapidly sent its signals troops

to set up a communications network for the Gulf war truce observers. That effort, said Pérez de Cuéllar, was “absolutely remarkable.”

The Canadian signallers will soon start returning home from the Gulf, to be replaced by civilian technicians. But an equal number of other Canadian servicemen are standing by to become peacekeepers if Pretoria at last agrees to obey a 10-year-old Security Council resolution and vacate Namibia—a sparsely populated, 329,600-square-mile territory between South Africa and Angola. The Canadians would be part of a force of 7,500 soldiers and 2,500 civilians that the UN would send to the territory, beginning on Nov. 1, to keep the peace and oversee elections leading to independence next year. Canada’s likely role in that force—to be called United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG)—will be to handle logistics. The Canadian contingent could include a number of medium-lift helicopters, said Lt.-Col. Alexander Morrison, counsellor responsible for arms control and peacekeeping issues at Canada’s UN mis-

sion. Added Morrison: “We’re ready to go.” The overall UN involvement in Namibia would, according to Pérez de Cuéllar, be “an enormous operation,” lasting a year and costing up to $853 million. But the UN has grave financial problems, caused in large part by the U.S. policy of withholding its $262 million in annual dues to pressure the world body into fiscal and administrative reforms. And although on Sept. 13 Reagan announced a reversal of that policy, it will take

some years for Washington to clear up the $648 million it owes in back payments. Pérez de Cuéllar seemed confident about meeting the bill. Said the secretary general: “It is such an important cause—so decisive for peace in southern Africa—that I think countries are going to contribute.”

But despite the hopes raised by Pérez de Cuéllar’s four-day visit to southern Africa, there were still obstacles to a settlement on Namibia—an issue inextricably bound up with the wider regional conflict. In New York last week, ambassadors and foreign ministers from six black African countries—Congo, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Mali, Nigeria and Zaïre—held a series of discreet meetings with Angolan leaders. Their aim was to persuade Angola’s Marxist government to enter into meaningful negotiations with the rebels of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), who have been waging civil war since Angola gained independence from Portugal in 1975. UNITA is armed and supported by South Africa and the United States, while the Angolan government is supplied by the Soviet Union and supported by an estimated 40,000 Cuban troops.

A negotiated end to Angola’s civil war is widely regarded as a necessary first step to a wider solution involving a Cuban withdrawal from Angola and a reciprocal South African withdrawal from Namibia. In a dramatic new action designed to bring that about, leaders of whiteruled South Africa were preparing last week for an unprecedented summit meeting with their counterparts from Angola, Zaïre, Zambia and other black states. Comgmented the state-run S South African radio last i Thursday: “Until fairly g recently, such a meeting g would have been difficult I to visualize. Today, it is 5 a distinct possibility.” xAnd yet another negoti-

0-1 i

" ating track was reopened with the announcement that Cuban, Angolan and South African representatives would meet this week in Brazzaville, the Congo capital, for a fresh round of U.S.-mediated talks.

Meanwhile, in another part of Africa—the Western Sahara—there were signs of yet another major Canadian commitment to UN peacekeeping. According to the Canadian mission’s Morrison, a force as big as UNTAG—including a substantial Canadian contingent—could be sent to the Western Sahara when, as seems likely, Morocco and

the Polisario Front guerrillas implement a UN plan that would end their 12 years of sporadic desert warfare over the territory. In fact, diplomatic sources say that the Western Sahara peace force may have a Canadian commander: Maj.-Gen. Terence Liston, chief of operational planning and force development at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa, who travelled to the region last fall to study the situation on behalf of the UN.

For the UN, long scorned as irrelevant by many Western nations, the recent resurgence has brought a new sense of purpose. That mood is especially obvious in the demeanor of the usually reserved and somewhat austere Pérez de Cuéllar himself. Said Therese Paquet-Sevigny, the Canadian undersecretary general in charge of the UN’s information department: “It’s wonderful to see a man who is normally so low-key, suddenly blossoming as he has done. It’s fascinating, so special.”

The air of buoyant optimism is also noticeable in the corridors of the UN’s glassfronted headquarters on the East River. Said Canada’s Stephen Lewis, until last July the Mulroney government’s ambassador to the world organization: “It is a real renaissance, even though it is caused not so much by the virtue of the organization

as by external circumstances.”

Those circumstances include Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s readiness to terminate regional conflicts, and the war-weariness of combatants like Iran and Iraq. Those factors have in turn contributed to what Greek Cypriot President George Vassiliou recently called “a peace epidemic,” in which parties to other disputes are also resorting to the conference table. “What’s important about the UN is that it’s there,” said Lewis, “and that when it is propitious to make use of it, the UN can be enormously effective.” Agreed Sir Brian Urquhart, a former UN undersecre-

tary who served in the organization from its birth in 1945 until his retirement in 1986: “The UN works all right if the climate is good and people use it in the right way.” But he added: “I think it’s a little early to proclaim a renaissance. For example, how close are we today to the starting line we were all on in 1945 when we signed the UN charter and renounced the use of force to solve international

0 disputes? And what about = the rule of law? We don’t

1 hear much about that now.” Indeed, Urquhart expressed concern at the “terrible expediency that has crept over international af-

g fairs in the past 40 years.” He pointed especially to the muted world reaction to Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and Kurdish rebels. “It’s an appalling regression,” said Urquhart. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to principle again, but chemical warfare might be a good place to do it.” Urquhart’s reservations may be justified. But with the UN in its current can-do mood—and both the superpowers and smaller nations such as Canada ready to support it—the world organization’s future looks brighter than it has since the 1960s.

JOHN BIERMAN in New York City with correspondents’ reports