In late July dawn raids in Nairobi, Kenya, seven alleged top architects of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were arrested and later transported to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This dramatic development in a region starving for justice is a step toward easing the human rights crisis that grips Central Africa. But the crisis continues - note the ongoing killing or disappearance of very large numbers of refugees in eastern Congo, armed violence, and killings of civilians in Burundi.
The current Central African crisis is deeply rooted in the Rwandan genocide. The establishment of refugee camps in Zaire in 1994 and their domination by the very Hutu extremists who had carried out the genocide caused great instability on the Rwandan and Burundian borders. For the next two years the Mobutu regime supported cross-border attacks into Rwanda and Burundi by Hutu guerrillas based in and near the camps, and allowed a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing of Zairean Tutsis.
Last fall, elements of the Rwandan Army joined with Laurent Kabila's guerrilla insurgency and broke up the camps. As Mr. Kabila's forces moved across Zaire earlier this year, reports grew of widespread killings of Hutu refugees and of masses of refugees, sometimes mixed with Hutu militia, fleeing into the vast Congolese forests or neighboring countries.
Last month, I traveled to eastern Congo to gather first-hand information and assess these reports. Based on my visits to refugee transit camps and alleged killing sites, and interviews with international humanitarian workers, I concluded that the reports of widespread killings and missing refugees were highly credible. They underscored the urgency of fully implementing the regional strategy that the US and others in the international community are pursuing to address this ongoing crisis.
The most important long-term element of this strategy is justice. Unless those responsible for the Rwandan genocide are held accountable for their crimes against humanity, the spiral of violence and impunity may continue. That is why recent reforms and strengthening of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, as well as the dramatic arrests in Nairobi, under the leadership of the tribunal's new deputy prosecutor, Bernard Muna, are key steps. The tribunal can lift the cloud of collective guilt and fix individual responsibility where it belongs.
Equally important in the short term is a UN investigation of the massive human rights abuses that have occurred in eastern Congo since 1994. Although its security forces may not have been responsible for many of these abuses, the new Kabila government should not receive aid until it allows unimpeded access to UN investigators and humanitarian workers and takes steps to stop the killing of refugees.
Other key elements of a comprehensive policy aimed at reducing regional violence and human rights abuses include:
* Military-to-military contact with the leadership of the new Congolese Army (once democracy benchmarks are met) to stress prevention of attacks on unarmed refugees and civilians.
* Diplomatic engagement with the Rwandan government to urge restraint of Rwandan military elements in Congo.
* International support for a domestic institution such as a truth commission in Congo that could address both economic crimes and ethnic violence.
* Support for Rwanda's refugee repatriation program and its struggling new justice system.
* Expansion of the UN human rights field missions in both Rwanda and Burundi.
* Consultation and coordination with regional governments on human rights and humanitarian issues.
If there is to be an end to the violence in Central Africa - an end to genocide, ethnic cleansing, the heartbreaking flow of refugees and displaced populations across immense distances and under tragic conditions - the international community must unite to end the crisis. Hard work and a sustained strategy are essential to bringing peace and justice to these troubled lands. With July's arrests in Nairobi, Central Africans at last have an opportunity to begin to break the cycle of vengeance and retribution. Working with governments in the region, the international community can help them do so.
* John Shattuck is US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.