Don’t blame the UN for an American mess and their worst sort of cynicism over Rwanda


WHAT happened at the United Nations Security Council in the early hours of yesterday will be recorded as one of the most shameful episodes in its history. While the United States quibbled and prevaricated over the cost of sending more UN troops to Rwanda, the Rwandan foreign minister, whose government stands accused of genocide, made a speech regarded by many there as blatantly racist in its anti-Tutsi overtones. Jerome Bicamumpaka then cast a lone vote against an arms embargo. He was challenged not by France, which has the closest political links with Rwanda, nor the US, which has the power and the purse to send help, but by the New Zealand delegate.

UN credibility in human catastrophes is already thin. When the killing started in Kigali last month, UN troops had to stand by and watch the murder of women and children. Then UN headquarters withdrew half of them, leaving a weakened force on the ground. UN agencies, working to UN rules, refused to evacuate their local staff when they pulled out, knowing that many of them faced certain death.

But this is not another cock-up by UN bureaucracy. This is one for the Security Council, and it is the United States that has delayed and prevented the dispatch of more troops. As the massacres spread, Boutros Boutros-Ghali proposed getting blue helmets back into Rwanda. In response Washington, even though it has no intention of sending a single American soldier, keeps postponing action. Meanwhile the killing goes on.

US diplomats call it ”asking the hard questions”. They say Congress will not pay for another peace-keeping disaster and that unless the UN can give clear answers, all the money for peace-keeping will dry up. They have already proposed closing down the Somalia operation. So they ask: ”What are the troops supposed to do? Who will pay? How long will they stay? How will they get there?”

These are all sensible questions, but does the UN do nothing until the last dime is accounted for? The giveaway line in the American argument is: ”We don’t want another Somalia.” Retrospectively, Washington is trying to present its intervention in Somalia as some UN foul-up in which it unfortunately became entangled.

President Clinton complained recently that the UN was asking the United States to do too much. But the Somalia intervention was made in the USA. The offer of troops – American. The plan to invade – American. The timing – American. The decision to pursue General Aideed – American.

It may have had a UN Security Council resolution as a fig leaf, but the Somalia intervention was as American as the Gulf war. It ended in catastrophe when 18 US troops and about 1,000 Somalis died on the night of 18 October last year. Washington cut and ran. Now the Clinton administration is trying to delay troops being sent by other nations to the worst man-made disaster since the Second World War. Rwandans are dying because the US messed up in Somalia.

It is ironic that Washington is proposing safe zones along the Rwandan border – precisely the plan that some suggested for Somalia. There are huge difficulties in sending a force into Rwanda. The impression given by Oxfam that the killings could be stopped by the arrival of UN troops is nave.

Neither side has agreed to a ceasefire and it seems that the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the largely Tutsi rebel force, will continue its advance westwards. This battlefront is not where the killings are taking place. Most of the massacres are being perpetrated by militias armed and supported by the Hutu extremists in the army and the rump government it serves. They use machetes, spears, even hoes, and they kill on faraway hillsides and valleys, miles from any tar road. The usual military techniques of patrolling and disarming would be impossible in such areas.

There are good military arguments for concentrating the force along the borders, though this may act as a magnet for more refugees. But sending forces to the borders does not preclude sending some troops into safe zones inside the country, strengthening UN garrisons already in place, or securing new zones by agreement with both sides.

In Kigali there are Tutsi hostages holed up in two hotels and in the stadium. According to aid agencies working in Rwanda there are 91 such centres where ”hostages” are under siege. These places and the roads to them could be secured and the Tutsis and any other vulnerable groups brought to safety.

This UN force will not solve the problem: there will be more massacres, the killing may spread to Burundi. But there are lives the UN can save, and in doing so it could begin to save its own reputation. If the US gave logistical and financial support – no one is suggesting that its troops need go – Washington could begin to redeem its own credibility in Africa.

At the heart of US policy on Africa are two gaping holes. One is ignorance about how African politics and societies work. Most of the able Africanists in the US diplomatic corps moved to Eastern Europe after the collapse of Communism. The Assistant-Secretary of State for African Affairs, George Moose, is bland and ineffective, significant by his absence from Somalia and Rwanda.

The policy, proclaimed endlessly, is to promote democracy and human rights, and through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund Washington has squeezed country after country to bend to its will. But the result has not been a continent of free democratic societies. One African country after another has slipped off the democratic path, and US statements sound more like prayers than a policy.

The other failing of Washington is the poker mentality. Problem: Somalia; solution: intervention; result: failure; conclusion: no more intervention. Has it not occurred to anyone that it was the wrong type of intervention?

At the end of yesterday’s Security Council session, the US delegation gave way and agreed to a 5,500-strong force. Washington still wants to look at it again before it is deployed. If the United Nations is balked from acting on Rwanda because Congress is picking over a few nickels and dimes for peace-keeping, what right has America to claim global leadership?

By Richard Dowden– Wednesday 18 May 1994



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