By Thomas G. Weiss

For weeks, diplomats and military advisers fumbled in Western capitals and at the United Nation’s Security Council in New York to respond to East Africa’s agony.

The refrain was familiar: “Let’s do something.” The United States was criticized for slowing what was to be a Canadian-led multinational force to Rwanda to assist refugees returning from exile in Zaire.

Experience in other war zones, however, justified the Clinton administration’s reluctance. Before committing troops, it was judicious to insist upon a clear statement of objectives and an overarching political strategy.

Indeed, several weeks into the crisis, the international community is still unable to agree on just what its mission should be or, in fact, whether a humanitarian need even exists.

To Let. Gen. Maurice Baril of Canada, commander of the proposed international military force, the need and mission is clear.

“We are trying to make up our minds what the real situation is,” Baril said last week in Kigali, Rwanda. “It’s very, very clear that we’re coming here for a humanitarian mission; there is no political side to anything, we have come here to help those in need.”

The general, however, is mistaken.

Quite simply, benevolence alone is never enough.

Before any of the major issues in the crisis could be resolved, the Rwandan refugees in Zaire had to return home. Everyone, except for the Hutu guerrillas in the camps, agreed in principle on this fundamental priority.

A framework for solving the crisis appeared when the human dam broke in Mugunga and refugees flowed back to Rwanda. This migration was finally brought about by military action–originating not from outsiders, but from Zaire’s Tutsi rebels.

The search for a response to the disaster in Zaire and Rwanda continues the post-Cold War debate about whether the West’s armed forces should be in the vanguard of international rescue operations.

In the late 1980s, the American public demanded a downsizing of the military establishment. While the fiscal “peace dividend” never materialized, the availability of the military to perform humanitarian tasks seems to be a benefit of sorts. The successful mobilization on behalf of Kurds in northern Iraq–along with substantial, if sometimes less popular, interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Haiti–have provided a means to fend off pressures for additional cutbacks in military spending.

So why not routinely use the bloated $265 billion U.S. military to assist in humanitarian crises? Until the Zairean Tutsi rebels liberated Hutu refugees from the camps in Zaire, the notion of military intervention seemed straightforward enough: Mobilize up to 5,000 U.S. troops as part of a multinational force to establish security along protected corridors, and then move the refugees back toward Rwanda.

Unfortunately, ill-fated adventures in Somalia in 1993 and those in the former Yugoslavia before the Dayton accords have led to what is variously described as a Somalia or Bosnia “syndrome.” Facile notions about using the military to help civilians have been replaced by more realistic appraisals of the limits of such efforts.

Another disaster was not hard to imagine–third-party military forces caught in a cross-fire on a landscape peopled by three national armies, rival militias, and desperate refugees. Rakiya Omaar, a Somali who directs African Rights, a private human rights organization, said recently in Kigali that the proposed intervention could have made “Somalia look like child’s play.”

The cry for help in East Africa is not a simple one to answer. France tried to help in 1994, and in fact did relieve temporarily the suffering of many victims. But they failed to solve the political crisis and in fact helped create the present situation.

In addition, Rwanda is an unattractive place to return to, and there was no international support to rebuild the country. After allowing the murder of at least a half million people, Western governments rushed blindly to rescue refugees, but chose to ignore the fundamental political problems that had led to the massive flight.

As a short-term palliative, outside military forces assisted millions of victims. But without an overall strategy, rescue efforts have been counterproductive. The perpetrators of genocide escaped arrest, and humanitarian help transformed the refugees in Zaire into political pawns. Some private aid agencies refused to play that game, but most indulged their humanitarian impulses. Thus, their benevolence helped maintain the 40,000-member Hutu army that was holding refugees hostage at the border and waiting to overthrow the government that had liberated Rwanda from the war criminals.

In the infamous camps, the interahamwe, meaning “those who attack together,” comprised the most sought-after war criminals–colonels, brigadiers, and government administrators. Their return to Rwanda would have meant local or international prosecution; these Hutu thugs skillfully employed propaganda and intimidation and played on humanitarian sympathies to sustain the refugees in exile and maintain their leverage with the aid agencies.

Military intervention could now be more useful than the 1994 French effort, but only if there is sufficient political will and resources to accomplish three things:

  • First, entice back to Rwanda, and even repatriate against their will if necessary, all noncombatant refugees;
  • Second, rebuild Rwanda and encourage the current leaders to support a multiethnic government;
  • Third, arrest major war criminals in the region and disperse minor ones outside of Rwanda.

Some realism about the limited utility of outside military interventions and of well-meaning charity is essential to respond meaningfully to humanitarian tragedies.

Thomas G. Weiss was the associate director of the Watson Institute, the executive director of the Academic Council on the United Nations System, and codirector of the Humanitarianism and War Project. This article first appeared as part of a special feature in the Providence Sunday Journal, December 1, 1996, pp. D-1, D-5. We thank Paul Tooher, assistant managing editor of the Providence Journal, for permission to reprint the article on this web site.


  1. nonracist says:

    It will never happen mate,Africa is for Expoitation.No real change will come,I am sorry to say.It is China who is now expoiting.
    We MUST unite as Human Beings,not nations,nations are government(bankers)
    Why can people not grasp the fact,WE NEED A NEW SYSTEM.A different UN.One that is really for a world “Where Everyone Is Equal”
    Please think on this and or share it with friend’s,virtual? or otherwise.