Having accepted the moral obligation to intervene in Bosnia, Western politicians who oppose intervention in Rwanda face the criticism that they value African lives less than those of Caucasians. Many Africans have been shocked by the UN Security Council decision to cut, rather than to increase, the size of its local contingent. The Belgian government's prompt withdrawal of its troops once its own citizens had been safely evacuated only compounded the sense of abandonment.
European and US diplomats have been quick to point out that ethnic and political conflict are inextricably tied in both Rwanda and Burundi. They are right to remember that the recent wave of killings is different only in scale from the massacres and countermassacres between Tutsis and Hutus that have plagued those two unhappy countries since independence. Yet although the tension goes back to the 15th century, when Tutsis became the Hutus' overlords, the Belgian colonists who ruthlessly exploited the tensions, supporting first one side and then the other, must take some responsibility for its current manifestation.
However dim the prospects of long-term peace between the warring tribes, the Security Council must not turn its face from the crisis. The Red Cross believes that the flood of refugees out of Rwanda is already the greatest exodus in its history. Even the most limited attempt to save lives must pursue four objectives: to open the border so that Rwandans who fear for their lives may escape; to provide food and water for those who have already left; to restore order inside Rwanda so that at least the casual violence of the militias can be curtailed; and to prevent the import from Belgrade, reported in yesterday's Independent on Sunday, of further weapons and ammunition into the country.
Washington and Brussels may well consider the situation too unstable, and the prospects of success too remote, to commit troops. But this can be no excuse for doing nothing. If Boutros Boutros-Ghali's demand for more troops is to be turned down, the Security Council must immediately put together money and supplies for neighbouring African countries to undertake this mission of mercy themselves. Only then can peaceful demobilisation of the militias be tackled.