Leading Article: Peace-making: a task for Africans

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THERE is a powerful moral case for international action to stop the slaughter in Rwanda and bring aid to survivors and refugees dying from hunger and disease. Events there over the past five weeks constitute one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the second half of this century. To allow the genocide to continue, and possibly spread, looks unforgivable. Estimates of the numbers already killed range from 150,000 to 500,000, from a population of just over 8 million. More than 300,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, and around 1.8 million are thought to be have fled their homes. Rarely can so much horror have been packed into so few weeks. Yet the killing goes on.

If the moral case for intervention looks overwhelming, so do the practical difficulties. Yesterday's United Nations plan for an all-African peace-keeping force of 5,500 troops raises two main questions. Which countries should provide the troops? And what might they hope to achieve?

It was the Americans who first proposed that since the tragedy was taking place in Africa, the task should be tackled by African troops. This suggestion was widely seen as both racist and a reaction to the disastrous US-led intervention in Somalia. The first interpretation is unfair. The Americans also believed the Europeans should attempt to bring peace to Europe's own running ethnic war, in Bosnia. Neighbouring African states, threatened with even more refugees and a possibility of the war spreading, have the strongest interest in the restoration of order.

Among the countries that may contribute troops, it seems, are Ghana, Senegal and Tanzania, whose soldiers intervened successfully to help rid Uganda of Idi Amin (though they ran wild afterwards). Eritrea should also be considered: its rebel forces showed discipline in their long and successful war with Ethiopia. The new South Africa should also be considered. What better start could there be to its assumption of international responsibilities? It will, however, have to be the West, through the UN, that pays for the operation and provides the necessary logistical backing.

The prospects for a successful intervention do not look bright. When hoes are used to kill, disarming the militias that have done most damage is impossible. Rwanda's terrain is hilly and packed with humanity. One thing is clear: whatever troops go in must have a realistic mandate. They cannot, like those pulled out earlier, be expected to stand by as women and children are cut down in front of them.

The UN's big post-Cold War handicap is that it was designed to prevent war between member states, not within them. Yet it is civil and ethnic strife that now threatens to destabilise whole regions. Only the unlikely acceptance of the UN as a powerful international human rights enforcement organisation seems capable of bringing peace where despair and a heavy sense of guilt now reign.