AFTER being rebuffed by 60 nations, United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has shelved efforts to mobilize a small peacekeeping force to protect a million Rwandans living in refugee camps in Zaire.
The episode illustrates a salient point: that while many nations are willing to provide food and medicine to poor nations, few are willing to take the political and military action needed to root out the despotism that often contributes to humanitarian crises.
That is one reason why mass genocide, which has not occurred since the Holocaust 50 years ago, is happening again, according to a report issued this week by Doctors Without Borders, the world's largest independent, international, voluntary, emergency-relief organization.
''The simple fact that it was possible, in 1994, to commit genocide amid widespread indifference raises grave questions about the constraints placed by the world community on the instigators and perpetrators,'' says the report, referring to the half-million Tutsis killed in Rwanda since April.
Without political action and justice, says the report, entitled ''Populations in Danger 1995,'' humanitarian action becomes little more than a ''plaything of international politics, a conscience-saving gimmick.''
Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, withdrew from Rwandan refugee camps late last year after former Hutu militia members seized control of food distribution in the camps and unleashed a reign of terror.
MSF secretary-general Alain Destexhe says Rwanda is a classic example of a tragedy -- duplicated in Bosnia -- that could have been avoided if the world community had acted to break the power of aggressors.
''When it was obvious that genocide was taking place, the world should have taken sides with the Rwandan [Tutsi] rebels,'' Mr. Destexhe said. ''Just calling for a cease-fire put the victims and murderers on an equal plane.''
Today, the international community needs to wrest control of aid distribution in the camps and back a UN war-crimes tribunal in Rwanda set up last year, the report says.
Another recent report, on the ongoing crisis in Somalia, comes to a similar conclusion. It notes that while the US alone spent more than $2 billion on humanitarian aid and the military interventions needed to ensure delivery of food to the strife-torn African nation, it invested almost nothing to solve the root political cause of the conflict. ''This was tantamount to treating the symptoms, while downplaying the disease,'' according to ''Hope Restored: Humanitarian Aid in Somalia,'' issued by the Refuge e Policy Group.
The United States lost some of its appetite for UN-backed peacekeeping in October 1993, when 18 American soldiers, part of a UN-led force, died in a 15-hour gun battle with supporters of Somalia's main warlord. A dozen other Americans were lost there.
''The concept of intervention should not be abandoned forever just because the US lost 30 professional soldiers on the shores of the Indian Ocean,'' cautions the MSF report.
If the world community turns its back on Africa, ''it may mean abandoning people in whom no major power has even a selfish interest,'' the report says.