Why Belgium cannot afford grand gesture

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THE PROSPECT of sending French troops to Rwanda to staunch the bloodletting in a land already indelibly stained for years to come by butchery on an inhuman scale, has put Brussels uncomfortably in the dock.

As the former colonial power, Belgium would have liked to have led world opinion with a credible Rwandan policy but, from the first, has been unable to do so. The Belgian Foreign Minister, Willy Claes, while careful not to criticise the French plan outright, has signalled his reservations. 'I do not think the French move is a clumsy one. I understand the reservations which have been expressed, but it must be said that all the attempts to organise a ceasefire have failed.' Brussels has offered logistical support with the implied proviso that any action must have UN backing.

Such reticence is not born of callous indifference, but of a hard-headed realism. Belgium has neither the troops, the money nor the diplomatic clout to make grand gestures on the scale of the French.

Public opinion, though sensitised by repeated news coverage in the press and on television, was forged in the very early days of the conflict when 10 Belgian paratroopers were killed. Belgian expatriates sent back in the early airlifts told of a concerted anti-Belgian propaganda campaign in the months preceding the crisis, orchestrated by state-run radio with the full connivance and co-operation of the Hutu-dominated government.

Unlike France, which still runs an Africa policy that in recent years has overtly linked aid to democratic development, Belgium - whose former colonies such as Zaire and Rwanda are dangerously unstable - has been busy trying to disengage from its colonial past, especially from Zaire which no longer receives aid from Brussels.