Responding to Rwanda

THE two-month bloodletting in the tiny African nation of Rwanda erupted so suddenly that it caught much of the international community off guard. But this community has taken far too long to recover and respond.

Three weeks ago, in a rare public display of institutional self-flagellation, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said the world's apparent paralysis in the face of a ``genocide'' was a ``scandal,'' a ``failure'' for the UN itself, as well as for other nations and organizations. Since then the UN has recruited a largely African 5,500-member peacekeeping force, but it has yet to be deployed. The Organization of African Unity, at the close of its annual meeting Wednesday, congratulated itself on brokering a cease-fire in Rwanda that neither side in the civil war is honoring so far.

Nor has the United States covered itself with distinction. After pledging to provide armored personnel carriers to the peacekeeping forces, the Pentagon engaged the UN in a debate over who was going to pay for them - this from a country woefully behind in writing the checks for its UN peacekeeping assessments. Only after coming under criticism for its slowness, rather than acting on the merits of the case, has the Clinton administration settled the question and accelerated delivery of the vehicles. Moreover, only now is the White House acknowledging that the killings in Rwanda are a genocide, after having instructed spokesmen earlier to say only that acts of genocide may have occurred.

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The most serious - if belated - response has come from France. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Wednesday that if the combatants fail to honor the cease-fire and if massacres continue, ``France, along with its main European and African partners, is prepared to launch a ground intervention to protect groups threatened with extinction.'' Given the French Foreign Legion and Belgian intervention in Zaire during the revolt in Shaba Province in 1978, the threat is credible.

The crisis in Rwanda ultimately will require a political solution. And misgivings over military intervention in the internal affairs of developing nations - especially when contingents include troops from former colonial powers - are understandable. Yet genocide cannot be allowed to become the operating ``norm'' in any conflict. The moral indignation that gave rise to international conventions banning the practice must be matched by the resolve to enforce them.

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