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Mon, Jan 24, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Rwanda's horror leaves a troubling
legacy for the UN

Lack of accurate information rather than a lack of international willpower hindered timely intervention in the 1994 genocide; perhaps it is time to focus more on preventative diplomacy

By Jonathan Power

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.

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