Mon, 15 Aug 1994

Apportioning the blame for the great failure in Rwanda

By Jonathan Power

LONDON (JP): `Things Fall Apart' was Chihua Achebe's title of his acerbic portrait of post-colonial life in his native Nigeria. An apt title, too, for a large part of the continent today. Rwanda will not be the last. Indeed, its neighbor Burundi is already in danger of going the same way.

At the same time we confront the evidence of probably the most monumental failure in the history of the United Nations and the humanitarian agencies. Never has a crisis of such fast moving magnitude been dealt with so ineptly and tardily. All the rushing to Kigali and Goma recently can't make up for the all the spectacular failures of April, May, June and July. Too many bodies attest to that. Too many bereaved and abandoned children shriek into the night for us not to avoid the painful duty to examine what went wrong and to say: Never again, never again!

Only three `personae dramatis' come out of this with their reputations reasonably intact. One is Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN's secretary-general who pleaded unceasingly in both private and public all the way along for more UN peacekeepers and more resources to stem the hemorrhage before all the blood was let. The others were the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medicines Sans Frontieres who always seemed to be there at the worst moments, even if they were dreadfully undermanned for the job at hand.

The rest have some painful questions to face.

Let us go back no further than mid-April when 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers were cruelly butchered after their severed penises had been rammed down their throats. The Belgian government pulled the remaining troops out. (Given Belgium's past colonial association with Rwanda they should never have been there in the first place.) The other main contingent, the Bangladeshis, then cut and ran. Shortly after, following a bout of hesitation in the wake of the Belgian decision, boutros-Ghali tried desperately to persuade the "big five" in the Security Council to rush into the breach and fill the hole with fresh men. Not only did they demur for themselves, the U.S. supported by Britain refused to authorize a move to raise a UN force from other countries. Of all the bad decisions to come this was, I think, the worst and most culpable.

Then as the fighting continued the massacres of the Hutu-led government army provided a deadly daily gruel of TV pictures- decapitated children and bodies floating into Lake Uganda. This roused public opinion in the viewing countries and appeared to force the hand of the major western powers. They finally agreed to help finance and provide equipment for a peacekeeping force-as long as it was African manned. The trouble was the African countries possessed neither the logistical means nor the equipment for such an enterprise. As Kofi Annan, the UN under-secretary for peacekeeping operations, has described it in the most neutral of tones, "some governments had offered troops with equipment, while others offered equipment without troops. Matching the two was expensive and time- consuming. Some governments had insisted on payment for equipment on difficult terms, leading to protracted negotiation, while others had offered equipment which need expensive servicing." The rest of us would call this passing the buck and how the Americans and the British can still look each other in the eye, much less the rest of the world, is to be wondered at.

At least the French broke the impasse in late June with their own unilateral initiative to deploy troops in the south-west of Rwanda. Neither Europe, nor the U.S., nor Africa gave them public support. It was not the best of decisions, given previous French involvement with the Hutu government. Yet, on balance, in this moral wilderness, it did more good than bad, although the French finally failed, in the face of Hutu government radio propaganda, to stabilize their security zone.

Now we have the U.S., followed by Britain, rushing in troops to help in the humanitarian operation. Yet despite all their logistical prowess they have taken the best part of two weeks to move into high gear since the press first reported the scale of the disaster. (Canada and Israel were much quicker).

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the World Food Program and the voluntary agencies such as Oxfam and Care did better than individual governments. But even they, as senior officials within both groups admit, failed to move fast enough. Although the Red Cross and on-the spot journalists made the enormity of the crisis clear almost at the moment of the first rush across the border the headquarters of these organizations failed to get their people and equipment airborn with the alacrity needed.

All this demands a swift resolution. We must all decide, whatever it takes, this must never happen again.