The UN mandate for policing the truce in the Congo expired this week, without the 500 military observers requested by the Secretary-General ever being sent into the field. It remains to be seen whether the Security Council's recent decision to send a 6,000 strong force to police the very tentative truce in Sierra Leone will be acted on. At the moment it seems more than doubtful.
The outside world appears to be almost frozen in its tracks when it comes to dealing with African civil wars.
In Somalia the UN pulled out, after the grisly death of 18 US soldiers. In Angola, the UN pulled its peacekeepers out last year after years of apparently fruitless wear and tear. And in Rwanda, the scene of the worst genocide since the killing fields of Cambodia, the UN is accused of turning a blind eye in its moment of need.
The horror of Rwanda will not go away. It lives on like the holocaust, keeping thinking people awake at night, as they struggle with their consciences over what they failed to do and what they might do to avoid a similar situation.
Just over a year ago on his African safari President Bill Clinton personally admitted fault. And earlier this month Kofi Annan, the UN's Secretary-General, made an abject apology following an inquiry made by the former Swedish prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson.
Yet we err if we think they should have known what exactly was going on, before it was too late. And we err more if we think that even when we do know what is happening in a civil war military intervention is a straightforward panacea.
In an interesting piece of detective work, published in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, Alan Kuperman shows that one major reason why the world failed to act to halt the carnage of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda -- the fastest genocide in recorded history -- was that the reporting was so poor that not until it was nearly over did we know what was going on. So much for "the CNN effect."
The genocidal violence began on April 7, 1994. But, as Kuperman shows, "Mr Clinton [or any other outside leader] could not have known that there was a nationwide genocide under way until about April 20."
Just a few days into the genocide the New York Times reported that "fighting had diminished in intensity." Three days later Le Monde wrote, "a strange calm reigns in downtown Kigali (the capital)." Only on April 18 did a Belgian radio station question the journalistic consensus, explaining accurately that the decline in the reports of violence was because "most foreigners had left, including journalists."
Human Rights Watch, an American non-governmental organization, made the first correct guestimate when on April 20 it said that "as many as 100,000 people may have died." The Red Cross followed the next day with a press release saying "hundreds of thousands" may have died.
It has been said time and time again, if only the UN had responded to the April 10 request of General Romeo Dallaire, its man on the spot, for 5,000 more troops, the worst of the carnage could have been headed off.
But the importance of Kuperman's analysis -- aside from demonstrating the widespread ignorance -- is that it shows that a last minute intervention could not have saved most of the Tutsis from their Hutu killers.
Even a US light infantry brigade of 5,000 men would have required a week after receiving orders to begin significant operations. And even then it could have only carried out limited operations until its equipment arrived a few days later.
Thus, even if Dallaire's telegram had been acted on half of the genocide would have been already completed. Dallaire himself was unaware of what was going on outside the capital and in all probability the arriving troops would have stayed in Kigali.
If, indeed, Dallaire had known what was going on all over the country 5,000 troops would not have been enough; it would have required a good 15,000. Transporting such a force to a landlocked country with limited airfields would not have been a quick business. It would have taken two weeks to get enough troops and equipment sufficient to attempt a halt to the fighting.
If there was a time to have intervened on a large scale it was, in fact, way back in January. That is when the moderate Hutu government was still in power desperately trying to keep Hutu militants in check. (These moderates were some of the first to be murdered when the killing began.)
This is when both that government and its old colonial power, Belgium, were arguing for a major UN intervention. (There was a small force on the ground under Dallaire's command.) But the US and Britain quashed the idea, arguing that the cost was prohibitive and that peacekeepers would be endangered, as they had been in Somalia the previous October.
What does one deduce from this? Yes, the obvious. We have to use our imaginations to better anticipate situations. But it is not as simple as that. Each of the recent interventions teaches a different lesson.
Somalia taught us not to allow peacekeeping troops to start to fight like an invading army. Haiti taught us even a successful military occupation by outsiders may not change the fundamental antagonisms that undermine society. Bosnia teaches us that after there has been an awful war military intervention can buy a little time for reconstruction, but it can't stabilize a precariously unbalanced political situation. Kosovo taught us that military intervention can, first, precipitate the situation it is supposed to forestall and, second, substitute one problem (Albanian terror) for what preceded it (Serb terror).
The intervention debate has become impaled on the horn of multiple dilemmas. No wonder the Security Council becomes so often deadlocked on these issues. No wonder even when it votes to do something it finds no member countries want to risk their troops to implement the decision.
If the UN needs to beef up anything it needs to beef up its preventive diplomacy. That means developing a large cadre of people -- not just a lone troubleshooter who flies in to meet the president -- which can go into a situation of conflict, stay a year or two or more and work at every level of society, not just the very top.
Jonathan Power is a freelance columnist based in London.
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