Bosnia: Fears Over UN Pullout

American move to end UN operation in Bosnia could harm country's revival

Bosnia: Fears Over UN Pullout

American move to end UN operation in Bosnia could harm country's revival

America's decision to block renewal of the UN mission's mandate in Bosnia-Herzegovina has roused deep concern among other western officials and local leaders who fear the painstaking work of bringing the country back to normality after years of war might now be jeopardised.

Washington has refused to extend the UN mandate because of its objections to the establishment on July 1 of a permanent War Crimes Tribunal, which could conceivably, at some future date, find itself bringing American subjects to trial.

"Unless the United Nations mandate for Bosnia-Herzegovina is renewed by the Security Council by tomorrow (July 3) … the international community will have to revise its strategy for helping the country," Bosnia's top international official, High representative Paddy Ashdown of Britain, said in an article for the New York Times.

Early departure of the UN mission, or of American troops from the NATO-led Stabilization Force, SFOR, would certainly not trigger a renewal of hostilities. But it would have serious consequences for the country where normalisation and democracy were just taking root after the bloody 1992-1995 conflict.

The US refusal to have its courts overruled and its peacekeepers tried for war crimes has effectively blocked UN Security Council decisions on peacekeeping missions around the world.

The UN mission in Bosnia had been due to expire at the end of June. Earlier this week, US representatives in the Security Council allowed two brief extensions until a resolution was found, but the second expires on Wednesday and no solution appears in sight.

Initially the participation of 2,500 American soldiers in the 18,000-strong NATO peacekeeping force appeared to be in doubt. But over the past few days, alliance officials and the US ambassador to Bosnia, Clifford Bond, said Washington remains committed to SFOR.

A pullout of Americans from SFOR would be damaging not because of the drop in manpower - which could be easily replaced from other EU countries - but because of the crucial US intelligence, command and logistical participation. An American withdrawal would also have significant political ramifications since Washington's influence in the Balkans was a direct result of its military muscle.

Although the continued US military presence in Bosnia seems guaranteed at the moment, the premature departure of the UN mission could also have serious consequences on the ground. Its main impact would be on the work of the local police, since its mandate was focused on overseeing the rule of law and day-to-day work of local law-enforcement agencies.

At the end of the three-and-a-half-year war, Bosnia was left with a poorly trained and scantily equipped police force, which was packed with ex-soldiers who paid little attention to professionalism and respect for human rights. In addition the country's borders were wide open due to lack of a central immigration and customs body.

Some local police had been directly involved in genocide during the war and in ethnic violence after it. At the same time, many border and customs officers themselves took part in smuggling.

Now, six years on, local police forces are well trained, properly equipped and familiar with professional policing standards. The State Border Service successfully controls most of the official and unofficial frontier crossings.

In the process, the UN mission banned more than 170 policemen from active duty for various violations of policing standards. Its observers spent countless hours working with and overseeing the work of local officers.

With these improvements, the UN mandate was supposed to close at the end of this year and the EU has already agreed to take on a supervisory role. Therefore, UN was already slowly shutting down operations in Bosnia but if these closed prematurely it would need some time to conclude all outstanding projects.

The head of the UN in Bosnia, Jacques Paul Klein, an American himself, said in an interview that the UN currently owns property worth 60 million US dollars - including buildings and other facilities as well as vehicles and various types of equipment. This means it would need time to remove equipment and sell property locally.

Thus a premature UN withdrawal would create a gap prior to the EU takeover. Local and international officials already warned that this could affect the respect of the rule of law and human rights throughout the country.

High Representative Ashdown stressed that early withdrawal would also impede local and international efforts in tackling organised crime, and have serious implications for Bosnia's economy on several levels.

The UN mission employs thousands of international and local people who every month pump millions of dollars into Bosnia. The mission's departure would not only leave hundreds of Bosnians unemployed but would also prompt closure of many businesses servicing the international force.

In addition, the absence of the UN would certainly raise concerns among donor countries and private investors who are still reluctant to invest too much into Bosnia-Herzegovina because of its bureaucracy, unregulated tax and customs procedures and widespread corruption.

Observers believe that the UN is still necessary in the country. The American power play over the War Crimes Court has triggered the first strong criticism of the US in otherwise pro-American Bosnia, which now believes it is being held as an innocent hostage.

Zdravko Latal is a Sarajevo-based correspondent for Slovenian daily Delo and Croatian Business Magazine

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