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Africa's Refugees

June 30, 1999



Much has been said about the disparity in the world's response to the crisis in Kosovo and to equally desperate situations in other regions, particularly in Africa.

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The point was underscored last week by an appeal from Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. She toured refugee camps holding many thousands of Rwandans, Burundians, Angolans, and others - part of some 3.3 million refugees across the continent. Her plea: More resources are needed to help relieve the suffering of these people, victims of conflicts that in many cases have dragged on for years.

Ms. Ogata's words were bolstered by a Human Rights Watch report that zeroed in on Sierra Leone, in West Africa. The accounts of murder, torture, and rape there are as horrific as anything coming out of Kosovo. After eight years of war, more than 50,000 are dead and 1 million displaced.

The inequities in international response are not simply a matter of apathy or of racism. The conflict in the Balkans is on the doorstep of the most powerful alliance in the world, whose mandate is peace in Europe. NATO members can bring to bear a huge concentration of resources, military and economic.

Sub-Saharan Africa has few such resources and relatively little political cohesion among its countries. Existing regional associations could do more to alleviate the tensions that lead to war, rights abuses, and refugee flows. Nigeria and others have undertaken some peacekeeping missions with at least partial success.

But international attention is a needed catalyst in Africa. In the past, the United Nations helped end conflicts in Namibia and Mozambique and set the stage for lasting peace. It remains indispensable, both to peacemaking and refugee relief. But it can only do as much as the political will and pooled resources of its most powerful members allow. They should refocus their attention on Africa.