How and When to Intervene for Humanity

Refugees' exodus gives the United States a reprieve to calculate what is too fast, too slow, too much, too little

Half a million refugees have returned home to Rwanda and handed President Clinton a reprieve. The chaotic international response to the crisis in Central Africa showed that we are still a long way from a coherent international strategy for humanitarian intervention. There was certainly little evidence of it in Mr. Clinton's decision (now on hold) to send 1,000 combat troops to help secure humanitarian corridors for the refugees. True, this was a departure from the conventional wisdom that the US should intervene only with "massive force" - a precondition that has greatly reduced US flexibility. Yet Clinton appears to have been swayed mainly by public pressure as well as the harsh images of suffering in Zaire. This is not the basis for a coherent strategy.

Nor was Clinton's determination to avoid a repeat of the debacle in Somalia, where 18 US troops were killed while trying to capture the warlord Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed. Clinton insisted the US contingent in Zaire would remain no longer than four months and would not attempt to disarm Hutu militia in the camps. But this would not necessarily have guaranteed success. Artificial deadlines for withdrawal do not produce solutions, as Clinton admitted when he announced - during the same speech - that US troops would stay on in Bosnia beyond Dec. 20. And would US troops have stood by if the Hutu militia had made a fight of it and insisted on their share of food aid? Presumably not.

The lack of clear thinking is alarming, because this will not be the last time desperate refugees are trapped between enemies in a remote part of the world, abandoned by any semblance of government. This script was played out in western Cambodia (1981), eastern Sudan (1985), northern Iraq (1991), Bosnia (1992), Somalia (1993), and Rwanda (1994). With Zaire close to disintegration, and so-called "complex emergencies" simmering in a score of other countries, the next crisis could be just around the corner.

We need a rationale for humanitarian intervention not dependent on TV images and the mood of the moment. It has to start with human rights, the prohibition against genocide, and the Geneva Conventions, which lay out clear requirements for protecting civilians caught in conflict. These universal standards were massively abused before or during every recent crisis.

If governments were to enforce these laws, as they are obligated to do, there would be less unpredictability about their humanitarian response. They might also nip crises in the bud and turn "early warning" from a slogan into something real.

International law has been less helpful in providing clear guidelines for the second great humanitarian dilemma, which is when to authorize the use of force. Chapter 7 of the UN Charter lays out criteria, but these have been broadly interpreted by a UN Security Council that has lost its bearings in this disordered post-cold-war era. The UN operation in Somalia collapsed because US troops entered the clan war against Aideed and then used excessive force. The UN mission to Bosnia failed for precisely the opposite reason when the Security Council shunned the use of force to stop ethnic cleansing and instead tried to prevent aggression with food aid. This merely emboldened the Bosnian Serbs and led to countless more deaths.

Based on recent experience, the next humanitarian intervention will probably need the option of using force if it is to reach those in need. But the decision must not rest with any one government. It would also help if the UN could call on a professional standing force, or a stand-by force, that could intervene at short notice with a mandate to ensure the delivery of relief aid. This would remove some of the unpredictability and politics.

It might still be difficult to co-opt third-world governments, which resent the way they feel the US has exploited its post-cold-war dominance to pursue vendettas against Libya, Cuba, and Iraq. The best way to win their support would be to exclude the five permanent members of the Security Council, particularly Russia, the US, and France, which have shown the greatest propensity for unilateral intervention. French adventures in Africa, such as the 1994 "Operation Turquoise" in Rwanda, have been aimed at propping up France's waning interests and - incredibly - holding the English language at bay. The US tends to base its foreign policy on "US security interests" or "US values," neither of which are easily understood elsewhere.

Canada, in contrast, has shown a consistent yet disinterested commitment to multilateralism and international law. Canada supported the earliest UN peacekeeping mission in the 1950s, and its army has been taking casualties in the cause of peace ever since. Canada's willingness to head the proposed mission to Zaire could prove a model for the future.

But if governments need to improve their humanitarian strategy, the same is true of the UN. The Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA) is meant to "coordinate" but is usually ignored by the larger operational agencies in the field. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) was set up to help refugees in exile but strayed so far from this in Bosnia that UNHCR relief aid propped up virtually the entire country.

UNICEF is supposed to help women and children. It took the lead in the 1994 crisis in Rwanda because it was on the spot and able to airlift in relief supplies. Finally, there is the UN Development Program, which wants to absorb the DHA and take the lead in future emergencies.

Too often these agencies are competing with each other instead of uniting against the common foe. This undermines the confidence of donors and makes it harder to provide clear information and deliver relief supplies effectively. They need to agree on a clear division of labor, develop a coherent and consistent approach to emergency appeals, and speak with a single voice.

But American politicians should also understand that they cannot prime Americans to expect the worst of the UN, withhold a billion dollars of US dues, demonize the UN secretary-general, and then expect miracles from multilateralism when disaster strikes. If the Clinton administration wants to shed its supposed role as the "world's policeman," it must show leadership in the corridors of the UN as well as the killing fields of Bosnia and Africa.

*Iain Guest is a senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.

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