SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador — Jose Maria Pardeiro does not hide his troubled mood when asked how long the United Nations must remain in El Salvador to instill respect for civil rights.
"We can stay here for one year or we can stay for 10 years. It's the same," he says.
Salvadoran society is so polarized, explains the 37-year-old lawyer from Madrid, that the United Nations acting alone does not have the means to change the situation. Its only goal should be to strengthen and support the weak institutions set up to deal with human rights in a country where death squads have eliminated dissidents with impunity for years.
Helen Hopps of Washington, D.C., another U.N. human rights worker in El Salvador, agrees that expectations were far too high when the United Nations took on the task of mediating peace accords between left-wing guerrilla forces and a right-wing government. But she quickly cautions, "People would be paralyzed if we left now."
The exchange underscores one of the great problems clouding the future of U.N. peacekeeping. The world simply expects too much from the Blue Helmets and Blue Berets who are dispatched to troubled areas emerging from turmoil.
Few outsiders understand the limitations of U.N. military action under present rules and traditions. Recent proposals for expanded peacekeeping envision an enforcement role that U.N. commanders and bureaucrats seem reluctant to take on. The prospect for disappointment, even disillusionment, looms large.
Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali likes to say that the United Nations once had "a crisis of credibility."
For years, paralyzed by the Cold War and 279 vetoes in the Security Council, the United Nations often failed to act when the world needed it most. It sometimes seemed no more than a debating society where ambassadors of Third World tyrants disported themselves by heaping scorn on the United States and Western Europe. Critics mocked the United Nations, and some New Yorkers even suggested that it pack up and leave town.
All that has changed. With the collapse of communism, neither the United States nor Russia nor anyone else has cast a veto in the Security Council since May, 1990. The United Nations can and does act. Frightened peoples in a troubled world clamor for its help. In the last four years, the United Nations has mounted 13 new peacekeeping operations, as many as it did in its first 43 years. It almost seems as if the United Nations is continually riding off to the aid of peoples in distress like the old U.S. Cavalry or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Now, says Boutros-Ghali, the United Nations has "a crisis of too much credibility."
The frustrations are apparent in San Miguel in eastern El Salvador, where Pardeiro, Hopps and a handful of other peacekeepers recently discussed their work with a group of visitors from the private U.N. Assn. of the United States. The peacekeepers are not soldiers, but civilians charged with monitoring human rights violations under the U.N.-brokered peace agreement that is ending the civil war in El Salvador. The operation in El Salvador, like a similar arrangement in Cambodia, involves an unprecedented level of U.N. involvement in a country's internal affairs.
Dennis McNamara of New Zealand, who heads the civil rights teams in Cambodia, says Cambodians, too, fret over the eventual departure of the peacekeepers.
"There's a great fear in the country about the post-U.N. era," he says. "There is a special fear in the human rights community, and with good reason." More than a million people died under the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
Instilling respect for human rights in police, soldiers and government officials in countries like El Salvador and Cambodia is an arduous task that may take many years. But it is not clear how long the Security Council intends the human rights workers to stay in the two countries after the main peacekeeping work is completed in the next year or so. New leaders, no matter how democratic, may not welcome U.N. watchdogs looking over their shoulders.
The danger is that the U.N. human rights programs, if cut short before they have a chance to become effective, will serve as no more than a smoke screen, satisfying the consciences of outsiders while abuses continue.
Much the same can be said about U.N. operations in the former Yugoslav federation. The United Nations has sent 14,000 peacekeepers to Croatia to monitor a cease-fire line between Croats and Serbs, and 1,500 to Bosnia to keep the Sarajevo airport and some roads open for relief supplies to the beleaguered Bosnians. Another 5,000 NATO troops under U.N. command are due to join the peacekeepers in Bosnia in December.
Secretary General Boutros-Ghali has tried in vain to shy away from Bosnia. He has not hidden his annoyance at the United States and Europe for pushing the United Nations into a quagmire that they themselves have been eager to avoid.