By Joost R. Hiltermann– January 26, 1998

The approach the United Nations has taken to severe humanitarian crises has, especially in Africa, been short-sighted, half-hearted and, if I may throw in another bodily function, weak-kneed. In the hour of greatest need, in April 1994, as unspeakable horrors began to unfold in Rwanda, the institution that represents the consensus of the international community left the scene with its tail between its legs. Even if one thinks of tough measures short of direct military action, like sanctions, the U.N. has failed miserably, not once but time and again in Rwanda, Angola, Liberia and, of course, Somalia.

An illustrative example of this failure is the complete and utter non-enforcement, and even unpunished violation, of the arms embargo imposed on Rwanda in May 1994. True, the brazenness with which a permanent member of the Security Council, France, flaunted the self-imposed sanctions on Rwanda replicated the deliberate subversion by the United States government of the earlier arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia. Can we then blame France for being indignant when the U.S. turns around to support the establishment by the Security Council of an international commission of inquiry in Rwanda (in September 1995)?

Be that as it may, those among us who were concerned about the impact of the proliferation of small arms in the Great Lakes region of Africa greeted the arrival of the commission with a measure of joy, even if it did not approximate our core demand the deployment of international military observers at key airfields in what was then known as Zaire. We saw the move as a first step in a necessary institutional review of the role of the international community in tackling the arms problem. It gave us a glimpse of the possible.

The United Nations as a Fulcrum of Inaction

That the creature referred to amorphously as the international community operates on the basis of consensus and compromise is axiomatic. That its consensus-driven approach encourages it to defer routinely to the lowest common denominator is something that needs to be properly understood. This is the reason, for example, why efforts to ban landmines under the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons have foundered on Chinese shores. (And hence the current campaign, led by Canada, Belgium, Norway and others, to draft a comprehensive landmine ban treaty outside the CCW framework). And this is also why the United Nations the embodiment of the international community time and again has shied away from challenging the French gloss on the causes of violent conflict in Africa and the methods of dealing with those conflicts and their consequences. The French effort to carve out a “safe zone” in western Rwanda under Operation Turquoise, which was launched as the Rwandan Patriotic Front had begun its military rout of the genocideurs, provides a fine example of the international community granting default power to the pre-eminent neo-colonial overlord in the face of gross indifference on the part of just about every other major player outside the African continent. (And hence the attempt by the new South Africa and the emerging alliance of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Rwanda, Angola and Kabila’s Congo to put a fresh and decidedly African imprint on the handling of African affairs).

When the supremacist Hutu militia in Rwanda set off the mass killings in April 1994, the U.N. looked on meekly, failing to define the unfolding massacres as genocide, and withdrawing the few U.N. forces that were already in place. Some six weeks later, awakened from its slumber, the Security Council resorted to what has become its response of choice in the post- Cold-War era: an international arms embargo on Rwanda. Reflecting the institutional lack of interest in matters African, the resolution announcing the embargo was not accompanied by concrete proposals to implement it or enforce its compliance by U.N. member states, although, as with previous embargoes, a committee was established within the U.N. bureaucracy in New York. Consisting of all the members of the Security Council, its mandate was to monitor implementation of the resolution, and recommend “appropriate measures in response to violations of the embargo.” By any standard, this committee remained completely inert for the embargo’s duration.

In June, the Security Council, having failed to find volunteers for a multinational force, authorized French military intervention in Rwanda. French troops entered Rwanda ostensibly for humanitarian purposes, but soon moved beyond U.N. authorization to carve out a “safe zone” in the country’s southwest. The U.N. then “took note” of the zone’s existence, in effect giving it its blessing. It was to this zone that the Rwandan government forces, defeated by the RPF in Kigali, fled, along with the militia and much of the Hutu population. Under French protection, the militia were able to continue to incite Hutu to kill Tutsi, as they managed to bring along their radio station, and indeed the French permitted the genocide to continue in the area under their control for a short time. They then began taking effective measures to protect the Tutsi, but refused to take the next step of arresting the authorities, civilian and military, who had been carrying out the genocide. In fact, as the RPF pressed onward to victory, the French facilitated the departure of some of these authorities from their zone to Zaire and continued to provide them with support and transport in Zaire.

Following a three-month investigation, mostly in eastern Zaire, in 1994- 95, the Human Rights Watch Arms Project released a report, “Rearming with Impunity: International Support for the Perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide,” which, published a full year after the genocide, proved to be a hot commodity. Naming France as one country that had violated the international arms embargo by shipping arms to the Rwandan government at the height of the genocide accounted in part for this attention. In Resolution 997 (June 1995), the Security Council adopted the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch to clarify the scope of the embargo by including explicitly the former Rwandan government forces that had found refuge in Zaire and Tanzania, and to call for the deployment of international military observers at key airfields in the region, most importantly Zaire.

For once, the international community seemed to respond directly to an identifiable and concrete problem: If the Rwandan government had committed genocide and was rearming itself in exile in Zaire with the express aim of returning to Rwanda by any means necessary, then interrupting the flow of arms to the former government’s forces in Zaire became imperative. This would be done by placing military observers at the key ports of entry. The United States, the United Kingdom and Germany were the main promoters of this idea within the Security Council.

Empowered by the Security Council to take concrete action, the U.N. secretary-general sent a special envoy, Mr. Aldo Ajello, to the region in July 1995 to obtain the consent of the states that would have to host the observers. After a short mission he returned with empty hands: No state in the Great Lakes region was about to give up a bit of its sovereignty for the sake of drying up the arms supply to the former Rwandan government which some of them (most notably Zaire and Kenya) continued to support. Not surprisingly, Zaire was particularly adamant on this point, claiming that no violation of the arms embargo had taken place on Zairian territory. It asserted that if the international community did not believe that, then it should send an international commission to carry out a formal investigation instead of accepting the information of a nongovernmental organization like Human Rights Watch.

Lacking the will to force Zaire to accept military observers on its territory, the Security Council in August 1995 suspended (for one year) the arms embargo against the new Rwandan government and in September established the International Commission of Inquiry (Rwanda). It charged the commission with investigating any allegations it might receive concerning violations of the arms embargo on the former Rwandan government forces operating in neighboring countries. This was clearly a compromise solution. The Commission traveled to the region in November 1995, and in its one-year life issued three reports.

The Life and Times of the International Commission

The commission’s work was hobbled with a number of factors almost from the word “Go.” First, it had not been granted judicial powers, and it was therefore unable to subpoena witnesses, let alone press charges. As a result, it was compelled to limit itself to writing polite letters to governments about whom it had received pertinent information, requesting their cooperation. This cooperation was usually slow in the making, and remained on balance wholly unsatisfactory. Most governments undertook evasive action the moment the commission arrived on their doorstep. France, for example, provided nominal cooperation while claiming that it was unable to arrange a meeting with one of the key witnesses, the “former honorary vice-consul of France” in Goma, over whom they professed to have no jurisdiction. This man, who used to go around Goma referring to himself as the French consul, sued this author for libel after publication of the Human Rights Watch report in which he was named, and stated in his deposition to the court that in Goma he had been an official of the French government. He withdrew the case on the day of the trial.

The commission was also hampered by its high-profile presence in the region. Received by senior government officials in the various state capitals, commission members were unable to make safe contact with some of the eyewitnesses (pilots, air cargo personnel) who had provided testimony to Human Rights Watch and who feared for their lives. This affected the quality of the information the commission was able to acquire.

Most importantly perhaps, the commission was blocked every step of the way in its efforts to gain independent access to eastern Zaire. Exhortations by the Security Council were met by the usual jeremiads and deflective moves from the Mobutu clique, with the result that the critical focus of an inquiry of this nature, the camps of the forces of the ousted Rwandan government and the Interahamwe militia, remained out of bounds to the commission.

This being the case, it is a near-miracle that the commission managed to draft three serious reports, in January, March and October 1996. The reports provided little new information but were effective in exposing the role of a number of countries in the supply of weapons to abusive forces in the Great Lakes region. Unsatisfactory responses to queries from the commission were picked up by the local media in these countries; the resulting publicity led to questions in national parliaments and generated pressure on some of these governments to carry out investigations of their own. The commission also managed to obtain detail on one specific case, an arms transaction involving a senior official of the Rwandan government posing as a Zairian official (Theoneste Bagosora), a former official of the South African government and known arms trafficker (Ters Ehlers), and the government of the Seychelles.

The most important feature of these reports was the recommendations they offered. These include:

The creation of an office, at the time of the imposition of an international arms embargo, that would monitor, implement and enforce the operation of the embargo on the territory of each neighboring state, collect evidence of violations, and make regular reports to the Security Council.

The creation of voluntary regional registers or data banks of movements and acquisitions of small arms, ammunition and materiel.

The encouragement for regional governments to ratify the Convention on Conventional Weapons.

The establishment, on an ad hoc basis, of commissions of inquiry to investigate reported violations of arms embargoes.

The request that states producing arms and materiel take any measure necessary under their domestic law to implement the provisions of international arms embargoes, and in particular to prosecute their nationals who are found to be in violation of such provisions, even if they conduct their illegal activities in third countries.

It is deeply regrettable that to this day these recommendations have not been acted upon, or even considered. They remain buried somewhere deep within the U.N. bureaucracy, forgotten or ignored by the governments that, through their support of the commission, had solicited them in the first place. More dramatically perhaps, the U.N. failed to make public the commission’s third and final report, which was completed in late October 1996 and leaked to the press within days. Whereas the Security Council had responded promptly to the two earlier reports, it took no notice of the third one, which it received, nota bene, at the very moment that the Great Lakes region was dipping into a new crisis as heavy fighting broke out between the Banyamulenge (supported with arms and senior military advisers by the Rwandan government) and a coalition of Zairian government troops and Rwandan Hutu insurgents. Even as the contents of the commission’s report were being consumed in New York, mostly by officials of the countries that were named in it, journalists unearthed fresh documentary evidence in eastern Zaire of the role of a British company, registered in the Isle of Man, in evading the arms embargo on Rwanda in 1994. No matter. Whether suppressed or found irrelevant, the commission’s third report became, for all practical purposes, dead letter.

The U.N.’s motives in failing to act upon and release the report remain obscure. Some suggest that the report became a victim of the succession crisis at the head of the institution. If that were so, however, one would have expected the new Secretary General, who is on the record as being concerned about the proliferation of light weapons in Africa, to have released the report promptly after his appointment. Some thought that the report perhaps proved so embarrassing to a number of governments that it became inopportune politically to release it; that the report was like plutonium waste: out of date, yet still too hot to handle. But the commission’s principal sponsors, the U.S., U.K. and Germany, were not, or not seriously, implicated in the report, and they had continued to support the commission after its earlier reports, which were no less strong.

It is more likely that the “international community” simply lost interest in the work of the commission once it realized that the next logical step would have been to allocate funds to the implementation of the commission’s recommendations. At a time of budget-cutting and Congressional criticism of the world body, the original sponsors, all major weapons exporters, may have reckoned that they had done enough in embarrassing France and its allies in Africa to have gained a moral advantage on the African continent, and that further steps would incur a financial cost without any additional political pay-off.

If that is so, the creation of the commission should be seen as no more than a political ploy, an exercise in advancing Anglo-Saxon interests in francophone Africa. But be that as it may, the commission’s very existence has had some salutary consequences, intended or notmost likely not: It provided the means to investigate and verify some specific allegations of serious violations of an international arms embargo; it allowed for the consideration of new, more effective ways of dealing with the problem of weapons proliferation in Africa, if not by the Security Council, then by other U.N. bodies and NGOs; and it put those involved in arms trafficking on notice that they could no longer operate with complete impunity, that they were being watched. It is possible even that the commission’s work during its brief tenure had a deterrent effect on those most closely involved in the lethal trade.

In the absence of political will to tackle in a serious fashion the problem of arms trafficking in Africa, what is needed now is to continue to investigate and reveal information about the complicity of U.N. member states in empowering abusive forces in the region through the provision, directly or indirectly, of arms and other forms of military assistance. Continued embarrassment and stigmatization may stir sufficient interest on the part of those least implicated to revive the commission (which remains dormant within the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations), expand its mandate to include the entire Great Lakes region, and begin the important work of instituting some of the helpful recommendations made by the commission in 1996.

Joost R. Hiltermann is the executive director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch.


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