Can good come from this hell?: Rwanda may yet teach the UN how better to handle regional conflicts, says Peter Pringle

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ONCE again pictures of bloody massacres and unbearable suffering fill our television screens, this time from the tiny Central African country of Rwanda. Once again comes the inevitable question: what is the UN doing to stop it?

The quick answer is the same as before. The ability of the UN to prevent or react to such crises depends on the willingness of its member governments to support the new image it has taken on in the post- Cold War world. And so far, in the case of Rwanda, nobody has wanted to do very much.

Yet it is just possible that the Rwandan crisis will be seen in future as a turning point, the moment when the UN member states finally came up with a formula for how to deal with small, regional conflicts that do not immediately impact on global security; how to set limits on UN actions, and, in President Clinton's words to the UN General Assembly last September, the point at which it learnt 'when to say no' to new entanglements.

Things have not got off to a good start. Hutu gangs from the majority tribe in Rwanda have been hunting down and systematically butchering the minority Tutsis. Even if the figures of hundreds of thousands killed are exaggerated, the death toll is still way above the results of 'ethnic cleansing' in Gorazde.

The first response of the Western countries was to evacuate their own people. Last month, at the same time that the UN and Nato were collaborating on air strikes against the Serbs, the UN Security Council was voting to reduce the blue-helmet force in Rwanda, which at present is a symbolic 270. The phrase of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, about Bosnia being 'a rich man's war' had more than a little resonance.

But when the Western powers, citing the failure in Somalia, said they wanted nothing to do with intervention in Rwanda, Mr Boutros-Ghali called on UN member states to provide 'forceful reaction to restore order' as soon as possible, even though he knew perfectly well there would be no such response, especially from the West. The secretary-general had, as one Western diplomat said, 'allowed his distraughtness to make him use words like force and intervention' when there obviously was a better choice. The immediate question in Rwanda, the diplomat continued, is not whether the UN can stop the Hutus and the Tutsis fighting each other, but whether the UN can provide security for a massive humanitarian effort. More than 200,000 refugees are on the border with Tanzania, and thousands more are coming, according to the relief agencies. The US has already pledged dollars 15m.

Turned down by the West, Mr Boutros-Ghali turned to the African nations to put together a force to arrange a ceasefire and restore law and order. Yet even they have been reluctant. Not only is there a risk of high casualties but also the Tutsi-led rebel group, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, has said it would have nothing to do with a UN force.

One suggestion is that, with so many refugees, the UN has a clear humanitarian mission, which could consist of a UN force made up African nations under the authority of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). Such a force would be paid for in the normal way, through assessed contributions from member states with half the bill being paid by the five permanent members of the council: the US, Britain, France, Russia and China.

A precedent for such a regional peacekeeping force already exists in Liberia where Nigeria has organised an operation using troops from West African countries. And the UN Charter specifically instructs regional organisations such as the OAU to try to resolve local disputes before they reach the security council.

Another suggestion is to put the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jose Ayala Lasso, in charge of an inquiry into the massacres, whose findings the UN would make it a priority to publish. The office of the high commissioner, created last year against the recommendations of the secretary-general (he thought the post would needlessly enlarge UN bureaucracy), has the authority to intervene personally in special situations. The US is in favour of such a move, arguing that the more the UN highlights the massacres the greater chance of them being stopped.

A third suggestion is for the UN to send a small detachment of guards to protect refugees and also those trapped by the fighting inside the country before there is a ceasefire and a peacekeeping force can be deployed. There is such a force in Iraq, where the UN sent 300 guards to protect aid convoys and monitor conditions in the countryside.

Set against the scale of the slaughter and human misery in Rwanda, such moves seem hopelessly inadequate. However, it is not a derogation of duty by the UN to have regional organisations take over until pressure builds for an international response. The bloodshed in Rwanda happened so fast that action by outsiders could not have prevented it. The UN's emerging reponse may become a formula for future conflicts where no Western country has a clear self-interest.

And if the Rwanda operation is deemed a success - by which I mean that all nations can take some credit for having relieved the suffering and restored peace - there could be other beneficial repercussions. It could, for example, help to quieten the shrill voices of the conservatives in the US Congress, who seem hell-bent on destroying the UN by painting it as an unbearable financial burden - even though the UN's entire 1992 peacekeeping force cost dollars 2.4bn, less than the cost of two days of Desert Storm or two Stealth bombers.

A 'successful' result could help to fine-tune exactly what kind of 'reaction force', either rapid or permanent, the UN should be seeking, and the conditions under which such a force might be used. And it could help to determine how much more emphasis should be placed by the UN on preventive diplomacy - spotting and defusing crises before they explode. Recent UN missions to Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Angola and now Rwanda show how tricky intervention can be, and have overshadowed the relatively successful operations in Namibia, El Salvador and particularly Cambodia. In short, Rwanda, if handled well, could greatly ease the UN's terrible public relations problem.