LEADING ARTICLE: A tragedy on the border

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In 1965 the central African republic of Zaire acceded to the International Convention on the status of refugees. Article 33 says that "no contracting state shall expel or return a refugee ... where his life or freedom would be threatened". But for three days now, the Zairean army has been engaged in forcing thousands of fearful Rwandan refugees back over the border, into a country where they fear they will be killed. Tiny orphans, elderly people and invalids have simply been dumped at border crossings, and told to make their own way from there. It is a blatant breach of an international convention.

Zaire claims that it has had no choice but to take this action - and that criticism from the West is hypocritical and unhelpful. With no sign of a large-scale return to Rwanda by the refugees, the Zairean authorities were faced with the de facto creation of a refugee state of up to a million people. Like the Lebanese trying to cope with a permanent Palestinian presence, the Zaireans fear the destabilisation of government in the camp areas, and point to the disruption of fragile environmental and political balances.

You can see their point. Since the exodus of the Hutu refugees a year ago, there has been too little progress in encouraging them to go home. The old Hutu leadership - responsible for the massacre of Rwanda's Tutsis - now holds sway in the camps. They want to keep as many people out of Rwanda as possible, until they are ready to return in style, at the head of a victorious army.

Their task is made easier by the actions of the new government in Kigali. Understandably determined to mete out justice to the perpetrators of the earlier massacres, the government has imprisoned 50,000 Hutu men and boys, prior to trials for genocide. So grim are the conditions in these jails and so protracted is the judicial process that incarceration practically amounts to a death sentence.

All this was not only predictable - it was predicted. That was why the major international donors, including the EU countries, the US and Japan, got together in January round a table in Geneva. Then $578m was pledged to help to create the conditions whereby the Rwandan judicial system and infrastructure was capable of dealing humanely with cases before it.

Amazingly, the vast bulk of these funds have not been forthcoming. The UK and Dutch have been the only governments to honour their promise - the Kigali government has received far less than a tenth of what was pledged. There is, supposedly, a fear that funds might fall into the hands of a returning Hutu administration and be used to prosecute a war with the Tutsis. In reality there has been a simple desire not to cough up.

Those withholding money must be hoping that the Zairean action, brutal and illegal though it is, will have the desired effect of separating returning refugees from the malign leadership of the Goma camps. But it is just as likely that it will set off yet another human disaster, with people returning in appalling conditions to homes and fields that do not exist and to an administrative system that cannot cope with them.

Whichever is right, the international community should delay help to Rwanda no longer.

Comments