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The Warrior's Honour: ethnic war and the modern conscience

by Michael Ignatieff

Chatto & Windus, pounds 10.99

When Dr Marcel Junod, the most respected of all the delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross, sat down in the late 1940s to write his memoirs, he called them Le Troisieme Combatant, published in England as Warrior Without Weapons. Michael Ignatieff's new book on ethnic conflict and the reactions it produces in the Western world is about both the modern men of war and the latter-day Junods: the neutral humanitarian envoys, peacekeepers and providers of aid.

For Junod, writing about Abyssinia, Spain and the Second World War, these men - and they were all men then - played a clear role, and the good they were able to do was seldom questioned. His counterparts today, as Ignatieff makes plain, do not have it so easy: derided, divided, they struggle to keep afloat in wars with no rules, witnessing atrocities impossible to comprehend.

The Warrior's Honour is based on a series of essays and articles written as Ignatieff travelled around some of the battlefields of modern ethnic war. They pose questions everyone involved in human rights and humanitarian work constantly ask themselves. Why has the world apparently become so chaotic and dangerous? What makes some people want to intervene in the misery of others? What prompted Western nations to embark on what he calls the "brief adventure in putting the world to rights"?

This brief adventure, he believes, lasted a little less than four years. Just as 1945 was the moment when the exhausted countries of the world were ready to commit themselves to a new set of binding rules to ensure that the atrocities that had taken place would never be repeated, so 1989 and the end of the Berlin Wall marked a time of real hope. Competing ideologies looked set to sign humanitarian commitments, and the right of the international community to intervene in the domestic affairs of states where tyrants ruled was accepted. There was agreement not just about about what could be done but about the means - money, food, experienced international and non-governmental organisations, a responsible media - with which to do it. This was to be the nature of modern compassion, once there were no longer any imperial or ideological struggles to force intervention.

But it was very short-lived. Liberal internationalism came to an abrupt end with the massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica and the realisation that pumping in humanitarian aid was no substitute for political solutions. The Warrior's Honour, elegantly and persuasively written, sets out to explain why.

All the facts would seem to suggest that the world has become a more brutal place than it was before 1989. The end of the Cold War was not followed by peace but by confusion and anarchy. Junod would not recognise the world he once patrolled: no easily identifiable enemies, no clear chains of command, child combatants and seemingly random slaughter in which women and children rather than soldiers lose their lives.

As the drafters of the laws of war have always known, they are doomed to run a very uneven race with the diabolical inventiveness of military technology. The day on which the Red Cross flag ceased to be an emblem of safety and became instead a target for snipers - in Bosnia - was a bad day for everyone. "Neutrality" applied to aid has become a suspect word, as those who administer it are forced to wonder whether helping civilians survive may in fact only serve to prolong the war.

It was not until the Biafran attempt at secession in 1967 that the media became a major player in wars. Ugukwu, the rebellion's leader, cleverly realised that there was much mileage in keeping the image of emaciated children before Western eyes and employed a canny public relations firm in Geneva called Markpress to make sure that they remained there. Ignatieff writes about the West's engagement in current wars and disasters, shaped by television's "brief, intense and promiscuous gaze", which serves at once to bring in money for disaster relief and to make us voyeurs of the tragedy of others.

One of the most interesting - and depressing - of the chapters concerns a journey Ignatieff made with the former UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Pausing no more than a few hours in any one place, they dropped in on Nyarubuye in Rwanda, where Hutus hacked Tutsis to death as they cowered behind the pews in a Catholic mission church. On Luanda in Angola, where the scores of amputee children are reminders of one of the most savage wars in recent history. On Zaire, where Mobutu kept them waiting while he went to Mass. "Everywhere we work" the Secretary-General observed, in a rare moment when he was prepared to discuss the wider overtones of his job, "we are struggling against the culture of death".

The UN has not come well out of Ignatieff's "brief adventure". Who does not remember the UN peacekeepers toasting Somali children over an open fire in Mogadishu, or the helpless expressions on the faces of the Blue Berets forced to stand by and watch while Bosnian Serb soldiers drove Muslim boys and men away to certain death?

Ignatieff blames the failures of contemporary liberal humanitarianism partly on the narcissism of those involved, and their desire to show themselves capable of being defenders of universal decencies. It fails, too, he argues, because of the political ambitions of Western leaders, because the interventions are too self-limiting, too conscious of past imperialism. As a result too little is done, too tentatively and too late.

Western liberals and warlords in places like Rwanda and Chechnya are not thinking along the same lines. "We consistently overestimated our moral prestige," writes Ignatieff, "and consistently underestimated the resolve of those bent upon ethnic war". More analysis on why and how ethnic conflict so readily becomes genocide would have been welcome, particularly as no one is better placed than Ignatieff to explain why genocide is again so prevalent (for 45 years there was virtually none, with the exception of Cambodia, which was slightly different) and why so much war is now ethnically labelled.

Few would argue with this grim picture of the modern world and its warriors; so grim, in fact, that Ignatieff's robust, almost optimistic conclusions come as a shock. Just when collapse seems total, he argues, leaders do appear, able to forge strong, liberal and peaceable states, while the army of aid workers who now criss-cross the globe continues to grow in strength and influence.

It is not that the world is really becoming more violent; it is our failure to understand and act that makes it seem so, our disillusion at the unending misery and the way we cannot seem to do anything to prevent it. As for the Western conscience, there should perhaps be a better understanding that war may be an inevitable solution to ethnic conflict and that, sometimes, it is best to do nothing. Henri Dunant - the founder of the Red Cross, and so arguably the founder of humanitarian intervention as well - accepted the apparent paradox of recognising the inevitability of war, and then doing everything possible to mitigate its worst effects.

It is hard, however, not to end Ignatieff's important and extremely readable book without a sense of despair. States are disintegrating, while vicious ethnic and religious conflict spreads, fanned by the proliferation of weapons so light a small child can handle them. Finding world leaders able to contain and curb violence seems a flimsy hope, and one cannot assume that the army of humanitarian actors will continue its work in worsening circumstances, particularly as they are the people who now insist that humanitarian intervention is nothing without political solutions.

One reason for continuing failure is the lack of universal consensus about what should be done. France's refusal to endorse action in the Great Lakes of central Africa should not be forgotten, nor should Mitterrand's words, when he insisted on supporting the Hutus in Rwanda after they had embarked on their massacres, that "in countries like that genocide is not so important". Entering the year of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is impossible not to look back with longing to a time when it really did seem possible to draft a treaty that spoke of justice, peace and humanity for all - and to believe that people would respect it.