How to Help Zaire and Albania? First, 'Do No Harm'

In Europe and Central Africa, two countries are imploding. The prospects - for 3.3 million Albanians, 35 million Zaireans, and the neighbors of both - are grim. Has the international community learned anything from the experience of political implosion in Somalia or elsewhere that might help make the situations in Albania or Zaire less terrible?

These two countries share some similarities. Both spent decades during the cold war in the grip of rulers who never dared open the countries to political participation - or even to any meaningful development of their national infrastructure. In both cases, too, there are now real fears that a descent into full civil war could further destabilize broader regions that have long found themselves in an existing sinkhole of political and military chaos (the Balkans and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, respectively).

What should - what can - the international community do to help? And what should be the role of the relatively distant United States government?

A first rule of thumb, too often overlooked, should surely be some version of the Hippocratic promise to "do no harm." This means being very aware that all actions in such crises, but especially those of outsiders, can have consequences widely at variance with their original intention. All too often, things can get unintentionally worse.

Does this mean that outsiders should be paralyzed by the fear of causing harm? No. But outsiders - whether governments, inter- governmental bodies, or private organizations - do need to take two vital steps to lessen the dangers:

*Place a high premium on the advice of people most knowledgeable about the politics and societies of the countries concerned.

*Be aware that, just as politics is an inevitable part of war, so too is it an ever-present dimension of any humanitarian effort.

However much we wish it otherwise, there is no such thing as a nonpolitical, "purely" humanitarian intervention. (Just ask the Kurds.) If another country even does something as innocent as sending food or blankets to help victims of a disaster, it is inevitably strengthening some local networks at the expense of others, as well as having unavoidable effects on the longer-term operations of the local food production and marketing systems. And then how can they stop sending food and blankets unless there is enough political stability for local producers and traders to get on with the job themselves?

In Zaire's case, it's good that the United Nations is working closely with the Organization of African States (though both organizations have a bias of working with established figures in power and should be ultradiligent about building good relations with the Zairean opposition). In the case of Albania, surely the lead "intervenor" should be European, despite the miserable record of European bodies in dealing with all the preceding crises in the Balkans.

And what role for the US? First and foremost, some real financial and logistical support for the efforts of others. And second, the US should take advantage of its relative distance from these two sad countries (and from the lead role in diplomacy toward them) to stress some basic principles in the conduct and eventual resolution of their conflicts.

Washington should have the loudest voice pointing out, at a minimum, that the provisions of international humanitarian law concerning the treatment of combatants and noncombatants in any conflict situation are a matter of serious concern. Any armed party - whether loyal to a so-called government or to the rebels - that causes harm to civilians or prisoners of war should be informed in no uncertain terms that such actions will affect our government's and people's view of them.

Beyond that, US diplomats should stress the need for a resolution of these conflicts in which the rights of minorities are respected, and which sets in motion procedures to ensure the defense of basic human freedoms and the strengthening of civil society.

These might be excellent ideas. They may truly meet the needs of these complex and conflicted societies. But they won't be listened to unless we have paid the price up front by donating some of our country's ample resources - airlift capacity, water purifying equipment, food, field hospitals, etc. - in support of basic relief efforts. That, we should start right away.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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