There must be a better way

A former Canadian soldier urges the United Nations to leave peacekeeping to the professionals


Monday, July 10, 2000

Last Friday, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) released its damning investigative report into the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. This document, several hundred pages in length, examines the events leading up to the tragedy and indicts the world bodies that failed to prevent it. It may also prove to be a knock-out punch to the concept of United Nations peacekeeping as we know it.

I'm intimately aware of the human disaster that befell this tiny African nation. As a Canadian soldier, I lead a team of 15 paratroopers from a unit known as 3 Commando into the mountains of Rwanda on my way to the Zaire border in the summer of 1994. Our mission was to clear the way for a military hospital and, over the next few months, I witnessed the effects of the slaughter. All the way to the border, the roadside was littered with corpses and marked with mass graves. We saw orphaned children wandering. At the Zaire border, Lake Kibu was a mass of floating, bloated bodies.

The conflict in Rwanda was based on ethnic hatred and the lust for wealth and power. The OAU report details how an elite group of Hutu power brokers, known as the Akazu, were so determined to hold on to power, they committed murder on a mass scale to remove the threat from an invading Tutsi army and their liberal Hutu opponents. Despite years of warnings, the international community made no attempt to discourage them. The victims numbered nearly a million.

The report draws some startling conclusions about the tragedy and how it could have been avoided. First, there was the Americans: Apparently fearful of getting dragged into another Somalia, the United States undermined any attempt in the U.N. Security Council to reinforce the weak U.N. presence on the ground. Then there was the French: Their ambassador, Georges Martres, had been well briefed about Hutu death squads yet brought no significant diplomatic pressure to bear on President Juvenal Habyarimana's government.

Finally, the UN itself comes under withering criticism because it had been warned by Canadian General Romeo Dallaire three months prior to the genocide that mass killings were being planned by Hutus, yet did nothing.

But while the OAU report spreads blame around the international community, it falls well short of highlighting its own failures in Rwanda. The OAU was formed in 1963 by a group of recently independent African governments to resist western intervention or neo-colonialism. "Giving Africa back to the Africans" was its motto. For nearly 40 years, all the OAU member states wanted from the international community was respect, aid money and weapons to carry on their various disputes.

Throughout the latter 1980s the organization pressured Rwanda's military dictatorship to democratize. It was the OAU-sponsored peace initiative in Arusha in 1992 that forced President Habyarimana to form a multi-party government and accept power sharing with the hated Tutsi -- without any consideration of the consequences. Having increased the threat to the Akazu and their power, the OAU was unable to respond in any effective way to stop the lethal reaction.

This situation highlights two key issues of increasing importance in the 21st century: The OAU has spent four decades lobbying for less colonial influence in African affairs, yet, with the disasters in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Angola, Somalia and Ethiopia, it has realized that Africa's problems are beyond the control of African resources. As Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade stated in May: " Africa for Africans is an obsolete concept and a bad alibi for dictators."

However, this need for external support is occurring at the same time the United Nations is coming to terms with the complete failure of peacekeeping as a means to resolve disputes. Not once in the history of peacekeeping operations has the UN been able to point to an unqualified success, beginning with the total disaster that was the Congo intervention in 1961 through to the embarrassment of Sierra Leone this year.

In Bosnia and Croatia, the UN had to withdraw and hand over to NATO after the tragedy of Srebrenica. In Cyprus, the Turks and Greeks still wait patiently to resume their battle for the island. In Lebanon, peace is as elusive as ever. In Cambodia, Haiti, Angola and Kosovo, the local situation has not improved significantly after UN intervention.

This failure in peacekeeping has been exacerbated by the western dominance of the Security Council. Unless a European or U.S. interest is directly threatened, rarely will the Security Council be allowed to deploy a peacekeeping force. The OAU report notes, "An implicit racism is at work here, a sense that African lives are not valued as highly as other lives."

In an attempt to counter this "racism," the UN force dispatched to Sierra Leone in the fall of 1999 was largely made up of other African contributing states. Unfortunately, these African soldiers lacked the professionalism and equipment to do much; many surrendered to rebel forces at the first sign of trouble. Embarrassingly for an organization such as the OAU, the African peacekeepers, numbering nearly 12,000, had to be rescued by 500 British paratroopers. Even worse is the fact the only two success stories of conflict resolution in the 1990s occurred when member states Angola and Sierra Leone hired South African mercenaries to end the fighting in their countries.

After my personal experiences in Croatia, Bosnia and Rwanda as a UN peacekeeper, I vowed I would never do it again. General Romeo Dallaire knows how I feel: When you see what is happening around you, have the skills and the will to do something to stop it, but are told not to act by politically-motivated superiors, it simply tears at your soul.

In one instance, 2,000 Tutsis were hiding in a Kigali compound guarded by 100 Belgian peacekeepers. On orders from above, the Belgians departed through one gate while Hutus entered another to slaughter everyone inside. On their return to Belgium, those soldiers tore up their blue berets and threw them in a fire -- the shame of their compliance with orders turning to disgust with the UN.

There must be a better way.

As the OAU report states, the obvious solution in Rwanda would have been the deployment of a serious international force sufficient to deter the killers. Yet, neither the UN nor the OAU, nor any other international body for that matter, is willing or able to commit its soldiers to combat to resolve another nation's domestic crisis. What is needed is a professional military force, with western standards and equipment, but not belonging to any one government who would suffer political discomfort in the face of casualties.

One suggestion repeatedly placed before the UN has been the organization of a UN military force. The manpower for such a force could be drawn from the Nepalese Gurkhas. These professional soldiers, who have served the British, Indian and Brunei governments for nearly two centuries, are being disbanded. By incorporating them into a UN-run military, the world would receive a first class unit capable of combat or peacekeeping as required.

The only other possible solution would be the licensing of private military companies such as the highly successful Executive Outcomes. This South African company provided the only two successes in African conflict resolution during the 1990's. However, their mercenary status made them too bitter a pill to swallow for the UN. Maybe the time has come to rethink this option.

Certainly western distaste for such a group is a lesser evil than the slaughter of nearly a million innocent Africans.

James R. Davis, an international security expert based in Winnipeg, is author of the best-selling book The Sharp End: A Canadian Soldier's Story and the upcoming Fortune's Warriors, an examination of the privatization of international security.

Original article