‘It Was Improvise From the Beginning,’ in 1948 : U.N. Peacekeeping Units Still Operate on a Shoestring

Times Staff Writer

The U.N. peacekeeping forces, which won the Nobel Peace Prize on Thursday, started on a shoestring and are still operating that way.

“It was improvise from the beginning,” recalled Brian Urquhart, father of the “blue helmets,” who got their name from the U.S. World War II-surplus helmet liners that were hastily painted sky blue to provide the U.N. forces with a distinctive look.

“I wanted to have them wear blue berets, but it would have taken too long to make them,” Urquhart said in an interview.


The first U.N. peacekeepers were a small group of observers assigned to monitor the truce after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, but it was nearly a decade later when the first large uniformed force was deployed to keep order in the wake of a conflict.

The time was November, 1956, when the Security Council created the U.N. Emergency Force after the attack on the Suez Canal by Britain, France and Israel.

To help supply that force, Urquhart commandeered food from freighters stranded in the canal by the fighting. The force carried out a successful mission for the next decade.

“Since the beginning, nearly half a million men and women have served and 733 have died, and the Nobel is a wonderful tribute to them,” Urquhart said.

A young British army officer when he joined the U.N. staff in its infancy in 1946, Urquhart retired two years ago as undersecretary general for special political affairs after having organized half a dozen other peacekeeping forces.

Marrack Goulding, another Briton who now holds the undersecretary general post, said 9,971 military personnel are currently on duty, together with about 2,000 civilians in half a dozen places ranging from Cyprus to the Indo-Pakistani border.


The number is about to leap, however, with 7,500 troops scheduled to move into the southwest African territory of Namibia to supervise the expected withdrawal of South African troops.

$7.8-Billion Afghan Budget

Another important but much smaller operation is in place in Afghanistan, where 50 people are monitoring the April agreement under which the Soviet Union has started pulling out its army.

The Namibia force is expected to cost $700 million a year, while the Afghanistan observer force is budgeted for $7.8 million. Possible peace missions in Western Sahara and Cambodia could add another half-billion dollars to the total current bill, which Goulding said is about $230 million a year.

Moreover, the five existing peacekeeping forces are $484 million in the red, officials said. The United States, which is assessed for 31%of the cost of these operations, was nearly $100 million in arrears as of August.

A major portion of that arrearage, $82.5 million, is owed by Washington for its share of the cost of running the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, a unit of 5,800 troops from nine nations. UNIFIL, created by the Security Council as a buffer between Israel and Lebanon after the Israeli invasion of its northern neighbor, is the biggest current mission.

It was from UNIFIL that one of 36 American military men assigned to U.N. peacekeeping duty was kidnaped. Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, a Marine officer assigned to the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization, was working with UNIFIL when he was abducted in southern Lebanon last February, presumably by Shia Muslim extremists. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Goulding both appealed Thursday for his release.

Most troops assigned to U.N. peacekeeping duty have come from Canada, the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, Austria and small nations such as Ghana, Nepal and Fiji. For men from some poor nations, “blue helmet” service means a pay raise because the United Nations pays its soldiers on the same scale as the industrialized nations.

For the men and women wearing the blue helmets, it is an experience they could not get elsewhere--nor would they want to, in some cases.

Under Constant Threat

Capt. Michael Smyth, an Irish army officer with UNIFIL, said in a U.N. documentary:”We live under constant threat of being kidnaped by one (Lebanese) faction or another--you could be sitting out one day having coffee with someone, and that night he’s at you with a gun.”

The peacekeepers at most have only small arms for self-defense. The only time U.N. forces have ever fought like an army was in Korea in 1950-53 and briefly in the Congo seven years later. Although the U.N. flag still flies over the headquarters of the U.S. 8th Army commander in Seoul, his forces, which include the entire military establishment of South Korea, were not mentioned Thursday.

“Those were peace-enforcing operations,” said U.N. press spokesman Francois Giuliani.