Central Africa's Needs

QUICK, concerted action is needed to avoid a tragic sequel to the massacres in Rwanda, which were sparked by the assasination, exactly a year ago, of its president. As things stand, that country and neighboring Burundi remain on the brink of ethnic holocaust, with militant factions plotting vengeance and civil war.

Ways of pushing these central African nations back from that brink include full implementation of the international war crimes tribunal set up by the United Nations Security Council last November. The tribunal will bring a measure of legal process to Rwanda, whose judicial structure was swept away by waves of genocide and war.

Without procedures for bringing to justice the perpetrators of those mass killings -- which took the lives of up to 1 million people -- hopes for reestablishing civil order in Rwanda are dim. To date, however, funding and staffing for the tribunal has been laggard.

Even a fully operational tribunal can't by itself bring a climate of justice in Rwanda. The country's own judiciary has to be rebuilt, and Rwanda's current government of national unity, organized by the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front but including many moderate Hutus, has asked the UN to help it do this. A $4.83 million proposal has been put forward. It deserves a positive response from international donors.

Enduring peace could hinge on a judicial system capable of settling the land claims likely to burgeon as refugees return.

Neighboring Burundi shares most of Rwanda's problems, as well as the constant threat of conflict between a predominately Tutsi army and its increasingly militant opponents. Outbreaks of ethnic fighting are endemic. To help waylay even larger-scale killings there, the UN should push ahead with plans for a regional conference to address political and human rights concerns. Steps such as assistance in training a professional police force in Burundi are also urgent.

The commitment to rebuild civic structures within these countries, together with continued food and sanitation aid for refugees and displaced people, could pave the way toward a normal life for central Africans. Some may argue the aid funds just aren't there. The alternative, however, is a continuation of last year's horrors.

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