Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Break the Cycle of Violence In Central Africa

"Where is the outrage?" asked Bob Dole of supposed goings-on in the Clinton White House. But where is the outrage about the flight of a million Rwandan refugees and the outbreak of yet another tribal conflict in central Africa?

This time the world cannot plead ignorance. It is just two years since 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda were murdered by Hutu militia in one of history's most spectacular acts of mass murder. The international community did nothing and is paying the price.

About these ads

As many as 250,000 Hutu killers fled to refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania, where they have fattened on international aid for two years. The Tutsi government in Rwanda threatened, warned, and pleaded, but the world community merely reduced services in the camps in hopes of forcing the refugees to return home. This hurt women and children but did little to deter the Hutu killers, who stepped up cross-border raids into Rwanda, placed land mines, and channeled weapons to Hutu guerrillas in neighboring Burundi.

The Rwanda government has now spotted an opportunity to drive the guerrillas farther from the border. It has intervened on behalf of ethnic Tutsis, or Banyamulenge, who had lived peacefully in Zaire for generations until they were attacked by the Zairean military two weeks ago.

The conflict has now degenerated into a full-scale war along the length of the border. Panic-stricken refugees are fleeing inland, and it is beginning to look as though the Rwandans plan to wipe out all the refugee camps.

Frightening though this may be, another Rwandan catastrophe was also utterly predictable. Instead of reacting quickly to the 1994 genocide and launching a concerted program to arrest those responsible, the international community dithered.

The United Nations set up a war crimes tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, but UN chiefs were so indifferent to its needs that several months passed before even a secretary arrived to work with the prosecution team. Even today the tribunal has only four suspects under arrest in Arusha, and now a UN inspector is reportedly investigating its administrator for gross irregularities. This is worse than scandalous: It is an insult to the memory of the dead.

Things are not much better on the other side in Rwanda, where more than 80,000 Hutus languish in appallingly overcrowded jails. Hundreds have died from disease or suffocation, and not one has been formally charged.

Two months ago the Rwandan constitutional court approved a law on genocide that was aimed at giving the genocidaires an incentive to confess - and so unblock the legal impasse. But the draft of the law was toughened up at the last moment on the insistence of relatives of those who were murdered in 1994. Instead of providing a clear incentive to confess, the law expands and blurs the definition of those liable for the death penalty. As a result, almost none of those who fled to Zaire are volunteering to return home. They would sooner take their chances in the chaos of eastern Zaire.

About these ads

Is there any role for the international community in this mess? Clearly, the answer is yes. The refugees must be provided with food and shelter. This will be difficult to achieve during the rainy season, with aid workers pulling out and the Zairean government immobilized by the absence of President Mobutu Sese Seko, in a Swiss hospital. It may well be necessary to provide aid workers with a military escort.

But we should not be looking to peacekeepers - African or other - for a long-term solution. The root of this crisis is still the genocide of 1994. Until this is grasped and resolved, the cycle will not be broken.

With this in mind, the UN should convene an international conference at the highest levels. Its aim should be threefold:

First, endorse a comprehensive regional plan to arrest those who launched the killing and offer moderate sentences to those who confess.

Second, demand some common sense from the Rwandans, who are getting away with murder - literally - and sowing seeds for a never-ending war.

Third, immediately boost the quality and number of staff at the tribunal in Tanzania, discharge its current administrators, and send Louise Arbour, its Canadian prosecutor, out to investigate war criminals confident in the knowledge that she has the support of all governments behind her.

All of this should have been done two years ago. It will be much harder this time around. Zaire has no government to speak of, the killers are dispersing, and the Rwandans will be reluctant to yield their initiative.

But the world simply cannot allow this crisis to continue. Even the thought is outrageous.

*Iain Guest is a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. He visited refugee camps in Tanzania, Burundi, and Zaire this summer.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.