By James F. Miskel, July 4, 1997

The horror that has in recent months re-engulfed the region along the Rwanda-Burundi-Zaire (RBZ) border ought to be an icy splash in the face of advocates of early warning systems for humanitarian emergencies. Why? Because even though the idea of an early warning system seems to have been widely accepted as conceptually sound, early warning data about the RBZ crisis has been largely ignored.

Obviously, early warning systems have practical utility only to the extent that international organizations or major powers are willing to take action upon early warning. That is to say, even if a system were devised to provide convincingly and reliably accurate information about impending humanitarian crises, early warning will never be more than a lonely shout in the night if the international community fails to act effectively to prevent impending crises or to initiate measures that will mitigate the severity of crises that are unpreventable. Although a formal international early warning system has yet to be built, there has been ample early warning that another major humanitarian catastrophe was imminent in the RBZ badlands. For many months the press and the international relief organizations working in the region have been providing what amounts to early warning, yet the United Nations, the Organization for African Unity, the European Community, and individual nations like the United States and France have been unwilling to act effectively to forestall the impending RBZ crisis or to substantially mitigate its severity through preemptive intervention.

The question that advocates of early warning systems must answer is whether the inaction in RBZ was unique, or whether it indicates how the international community will routinely react to early warning from now on. If the latter is closer to the mark, little purpose would be served by erecting early warning systems. In our view, there are strong reasons for concluding that the latter is, indeed, the case.

The information about the developing RBZ crisis was certainly unambiguous, There was nothing equivocal or vague about the appalling conditions in the Rwandan refugee camps, or about the escalating tensions between the Zairians and their uninvited Rwandan ‘guests’. The fierce animosity between Rwandan Hutu forces inside the camps and the Tutsi regime in Rwanda manifested itself repeatedly in numerous acts of barbarity that were plainly visible to policy makers in Geneva, New York, Paris and Washington. The spurting Hutu-Tutsi violence in neighboring Burundi was well known; as was its potential for spillover into Rwanda and Zaire. Further, over time it became increasingly apparent that Zairian dissident movements were finding common cause with the Rwandan refugees in resisting the central government of Zaire.

Not only was the early warning information unambiguous, it was readily available to decision makers and to the general public. Its implications ought to have been particularly vivid since the international community had intervened in RBZ only two years ago. Moreover, many opinion leaders felt that in 1994 the international community had allowed the situation in Rwanda to reach truly horrific proportions by failing to act upon the ample early warning that had been available in 1993 and early 1994. Indeed, it may be recalled that the Rwandan intervention was preceded by several months of media reports about ethnic tensions and violence in the Rwandan capital, Kigali and incursions from Rwandan exile groups based in Uganda. Both because of the clarity of the information and possible regret that early action was not taken in Rwanda, one would have expected the international community to have been predisposed to apply the lessons of 1994 to the budding RBZ crisis.

It may be argued that, by itself, ‘raw’ information like this is often not enough to compel governments and international organizations to take decisive action. In humanitarian crises, governments often act only if vital or important national interests are at stake, or in response to the pressure from public opinion and/or important constituency groups. Being composed of nations, international organizations like the UN are likewise constrained. They act only after key member nations have concluded that their own national interests are at stake or after key member nations have been pressured into action by domestic public opinion. Thus we should not be surprised by the international community’s inaction in RBZ.

This argument exposes two paradoxes inherent in the concept of early warning of humanitarian crises. One paradox is that in many humanitarian emergencies the only nations with vital or important national interests at stake (‘interested nations’) are the nations that are least capable of taking decisive early action. Too often ‘interested nations’ — for example, the nations bordering RBZ — simply lack the physical capability to do the things that might make a difference. They do not have the trained manpower and equipment to restore order, confiscate weapons, distribute food and medicine, provide security to care givers, clear roads and protect public buildings. Often they also lack the economic vitality to contribute enduring financial or in-kind support for efforts to rebuild roads and re-open hospitals in a neighboring country wracked by civil war and famine. What they do have is history. And frequently it is a history of political or economic disputes that makes neighboring countries reluctant to work with each other and that makes a nation affected by a humanitarian crisis fearful about asking for help from its neighbors.

‘Interested nations’ already have an incentive to monitor and evaluate trends that may jeopardize their interests or destabilize their home regions. For example, Tanzania, Uganda and other neighboring states routinely collect information about trends in RBZ through their embassies, cross border business dealings, contacts with international aid organizations, domestic and foreign media. As ‘interested nations’ they have a certain expertise in evaluating trends in RBZ and already possess a deeper understanding about the region than they are likely to gain from a new, international early warning system.

The second paradox is that the nations that are most likely to find informational value in an early warning system are the nations that are the least likely to act on early warning. They are also the nations that have the greatest capacity for effective early action. The ‘uninterested’ nations — nations like the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan and France that have no vital or important national interests at stake in most of the humanitarian emergencies that plague the globe — are probably not already collecting and evaluating information about humanitarian trends in regions like RBZ. Therefore, information from an early warning system might actually provide them with new insights; but because they have no important national interests at stake, these nations will act on early warning only if a) the public demands it, or b) national leaders are personally affected by the moral issues at stake and manage to convince the public that intervention is the right thing to do. This is exactly why the international community’s inaction over the RBZ crisis may foretell the futility of early warning systems.

Clear-cut information about RBZ has been widely available for many months. As long ago as early 1995 there were reports in the press about chaos in and around the Rwandan refugee camps Zaire and throughout 1996 there have been numerous reports of ethnic slaughter in Burundi. Yet American public opinion has not pressured Washington to act. Nor has the Clinton Administration attempted to make the case for early intervention to the American public. Perhaps the November election was a factor; candidates for office usually don’t campaign in favor of sending military forces into faraway places. But the RBZ crisis has been brewing since before the election season started and the United States was not the only country that could have lead the charge for early intervention. That no one in the United States or any other country lead the charge in such a compelling and clear case may speak volumes about the practical value of early warning systems.

Ultimately, early warning systems envision a world where decisions about early humanitarian intervention are made by foreign policy experts in ‘uninterested nations’. Ironically, the RBZ crisis and the numerous humanitarian crises that preceded it (e.g., Rwanda ) appear to demonstrate both that foreign policy experts in ‘uninterested nations’ are reluctant to commission early intervention and that their reluctance is not based on the absence of the information that early warning systems would provide.

The American (and presumably Canadian and European) public will always be sparing of its resources — that is how it should be. After all, the philosophy of democracy is that the people who own the resources should decide how those resources should be taxed and spent. To be consistent with this philosophy, early warning systems would have to focus on providing information to the public as well as to experts-in-government. In a sense we already have such a system — the media. An early warning system that basically replicates the services that the media provides would not, in our view, be a productive investment.

James F. Miskel is a Professor of National Security Affairs at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Richard J. Norton is an Adjunct Professor at Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Professors Miskel and Norton have co-taught a course on US policy towards failing states and have co-authored articles on humanitarian and economic development aid.

©1997 The author(s). All opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, its editors and staff, the Feinstein International Center, or Tufts University. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, any errors in the article are solely the responsibility of its author.



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