The UN's scuttle diplomacy: Somalia, Angola and now Rwanda. Lindsey Hilsum says we are not learning from our mistakes in Africa

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I SPENT many hours last week on the telephone to Rwandans who work for the United Nations in Kigali. As I sat in my house in one of the safer suburbs of the capital, I listened to their desperate pleas for help.

Marie (not her real name, of course) was the most frightened. She is from the minority Tutsi tribe, blamed by extremists from the majority Hutus and by the army for shooting down the plane which crashed on 6 April, killing the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and igniting the violence that has killed thousands of Rwandans.

Marie supports the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front. She sobbed in terror as she told me that her cousins had been killed in the road outside her house, her next-door neighbours including four children had been slashed to death by men with machetes, and the same men had come to her house and stolen all her money and jewellery. 'They have killed so many people,' she wept. 'And now I have nothing more to give them and they said they'd come and kill me next.'

Marie works as a secretary for one of the UN humanitarian agencies. She has computer skills and speaks French, English and Kinyarwanda (I am using the present tense as an act of faith). But the UN, which has evacuated all its foreign staff from Rwanda, has done nothing for Marie nor for the several thousand other Rwandans working for aid agencies such as Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres. The Red Cross says at least 30 of its Rwandan volunteers have been killed.

All major UN agencies, including Unicef, the World Food Programme and UNHCR, were involved in relief programmes for people displaced by the three-year civil war. All were dependent on Rwandan staff, who combined office skills with local knowledge. Tutsis were over-represented, because for historical reasons they have had better access to education than Hutus. When chaos hit Kigali, it was clear that they would be targets for the bands of thugs who roamed the city with machetes and nail-studded clubs.

The head of at least one UN agency wrote to the Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, begging permission to help Rwandan staff to leave. The response was negative.

I know it would have been difficult; rescuing the foreign workers was difficult and dangerous enough. The UN security officer, a flamboyant French former policeman known by his radio-call sign 'Moustache', drove into violent suburbs to collect the expatriates. He had no armoured car and only one guard, but he negotiated his way through roadblocks manned by drunken soldiers with courage and natural authority. He received virtually no help from UN troops stationed in Kigali. No one claims that everyone could have been evacuated, but UN security personnel say it would have been possible to help and protect at least some. By refusing to do anything, the UN has lost moral authority in Africa. If the UN, with its humanitarian mission and ideals, does nothing to protect African employees when they are being murdered, why should African governments respect their own citizens?

Unamir, the UN peace-keeping force in Rwanda, has done almost nothing to stop the bloodshed in Rwanda. One journalist saw UN troops standing and watching as a band of armed men butchered a woman. Challenged on their inaction, they explained they had no mandate to intervene.

The events of the last week reveal the inadequacy of Unamir's mandate in Rwanda and the blind lack of realism in the concept of UN peace-keeping. The force was brought in last November at a cost to the UN of about dollars 750,000 a day. The mandate was to help the Rwandan government and the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front to implement a peace agreement known as the Arusha Accords, agreed after three years of civil war. Predictably, very little went according to plan.

President Juvenal Habyarimana used a combination of political manipulation and brutality to prevent the installation of a broad-based transitional government, the cornerstone of the Accords, and the programme of disarming and demobilising soldiers from both sides which the UN was to supervise was therefore delayed. In February, two influential politicans were assassinated, setting back the process even further and sparking a week of violence masterminded by Habyarimana's supporters if not by the late president himself.

Even the choice of the UN Secretary-General's special representative in Rwanda was inept. He is Jacques-Roger Booh Booh, an old friend of Habyarimana. His qualification for the job was a career as a politician in Cameroon, under President Paul Biya, one of Africa's most repressive leaders. As the political and security situation in Rwanda deteriorated in February and March, Mr Booh Booh flapped and flailed and issued press releases threatening UN troop withdrawal. When the mission came up for review at the Security Council, he none the less recommended an extension.

Military textbooks say that intelligence is the key to military success. A senior UN military officer told me in February that they had no intelligence, because under the UN mandate they could not use the time-honoured method of paying for information and massaging contacts in key places. As a result the UN was unprepared for the anarchy of the past two weeks: a Bangladeshi officer told me he had no instructions in the event of being fired on.

General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian force commander in Rwanda, is said to have asked for a change of mandate when the violence started on 7 April, hoping to control the anarchy. His seniors in New York refused. So while thugs and drunken soldiers rampaged through the suburbs hacking babies to death, UN troops retreated to barracks to await orders.

If they had shot their way through the roadblocks to try to stop the slaughter, they could have been accused of becoming party to the conflict, like the US troops in Somalia. But the problem is deeper than that. The UN force in Rwanda had no credibility. No one was scared of it. An adequately trained and equipped force could at least have asserted its authority over disorganised mobs more interested in killing civilians than fighting rebels. But though many more people are losing their lives in massacres than in fighting, the energies of General Dallaire are still spent trying to broker peace between the RPF and the government.

UN peace-keeping missions are multilateral forces, a motley collection of cultures and military traditions. Among the 2,500-strong force in Rwanda there are Bangladeshis, Ghanaians, Uruguayans, Russians and at least 15 other nationalities. Most speak no French - the language of government - and share no other common tongue. Third World governments make money by providing peace-keeping troops - the UN pays dollars 30-dollars 100 per day per soldier, so poor countries are only too happy to send their men. Five months after their arrival, some were still waiting for equipment.

During the first violence in February, Bangladeshi medical officers tried to patch up the wounded at their field hospital. Their lack of preparation was such that when I arrived with my tape recorder and microphone they begged me to find them medical supplies.

Then there was the question of the Belgians. Under UN rules, no interested party should be part of a peace-keeping force. But Belgium, the former colonial authority in Rwanda, seen by many in the Rwandan government as the prime backer of the RPF, provided the best-armed and best-trained contingent in Unamir. The UN allowed the Belgians into the blue-beret force because, unlike the other contingents, they could provide modern equipment and money as well as soldiers. It was a terrible miscalculation. Entirely without evidence, Rwandan army sympathisers have accused Belgian UN troops of shooting down the president's plane, raising a climate of hatred against Belgians. Ten Belgian peace-keepers were killed in cold blood by the presidential guard: six Belgian civilians have also been killed, the only foreigners to be targeted. Not surprisingly, Belgium is pulling out of Unamir.

The practice of assembling multilateral forces with mandates that cannot adapt to changing circumstances must stop. Failure was predictable, but the UN is not learning from experience. Rwanda follows Angola which followed Somalia. UN bureaucrats cannot run military operations in Africa from New York.

The UN has just announced that 50 countries have agreed to have troops on permanent standby for UN peace-keeping missions. That is better than the Secretary-General going round with a begging bowl for each peace-keeping operation. But if those troops are to be effective, they will have to be trained as a unified force and their commanding officers will have to have authority to act, at least when civilians are being killed.

And if the UN is to attempt to take ethical positions on the appalling records of its member governments, it will have to find a way to protect Marie and thousands like her.