THE international community's paralysis in the face of looming crisis in Burundi perfectly illustrates the need for a United Nations rapid reaction force.
The killing has already started in Burundi. Everyone agrees that hundreds of thousands could soon be slaughtered in fighting between that country's Tutsi dominated Army and insurgent Hutus, and that 1 million or more could flee their homes to escape being killed.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has appealed for the dispatch of an international force to forestall a massacre on the scale of what happened in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. Yet neither the United States nor other major powers are ready to contribute troops, and the Organization of African Unity has yet to come forward with a regional force.
Burundi has no oil and no strategic location; it is not threatened with takeover by a hostile power bloc or by Islamic extremists. It is, purely and simply, a major humanitarian emergency in the making. And it is precisely the kind of situation a United Nations rapid reaction force would be designed to deal with.
A UN force would not be intended to fight wars like the one in the Persian Gulf in 1991, and it would be inadequate to meet the immense demands of a crisis like that in Bosnia. It would, rather, be a ''fire brigade'' - a quick response to low-intensity conflict before it rages out of control into genocide and massive displacement.
Mr. Boutros-Ghali first proposed a UN rapid reaction force four years ago, and he has reiterated his proposal since then. But the type of force needed is not the one requested by the UN secretary-general. Evidently fearful of advancing too radical an idea, Boutros-Ghali asked only that member states designate ''national contingents'' - battalion-sized units trained and equipped to the same standards and ready for dispatch to crisis points at a moment's notice.
But a ''national contingents'' force could find itself paralyzed by precisely those considerations that block the creation of a force for Burundi: the reluctance of governments to get involved and risk the lives of their soldiers in a conflict in which there is no readily justifiable national interest.
What is needed, in the words of its most eloquent and persistent proponent, former UN Undersecretary-General Brian Urquhart, is ''a small, elite, permanent UN force.'' It would be recruited by the UN, be composed of volunteer professional soldiers from around the globe, and be led by a UN military command.
It would be ready for deployment the moment the Security Council and the secretary-general give the order. No government would have to worry about being assailed by angry congressional complaints about their soldiers' lives being put on the line for a cause not their own. Neither would governments have to worry about being criticized for failing to act to prevent mass slaughter.
Experts have estimated the cost of a 5,000-person UN force at some $200 million annually. The money can't come from the UN's already cash-strapped budget. Governments will have to agree to fund it, but $200 million is a bargain compared with the more than $1 billion the international community paid in emergency relief and other aid following its failure to act in a timely fashion in Rwanda.
If national governments are not themselves willing to shoulder responsibility for dealing with humanitarian emergencies, they should be ready to give the United Nations the means to do so.