The impromptu migration prompted US Defense Secretary William Perry to say the United Nations might now modify its plan to send a multinational humanitarian force to the region. No doubt he worries about the embarrassment of the United States contingent having nothing to do in the northern Goma sector where it reluctantly accepted what one commentator on the spot called "minimalist and almost risk-free duties". Meanwhile the UN special envoy to Rwanda, the Canadian Raymond Chretien, insisted troops were still needed in the troubled region, despite the protestations of the Rwandan president that what is needed now is aid not an army.
It would not be fair to minimise the seriousness of the disagreement. In the more dangerous southern Bukavu and Uvira sectors as many as 500,000 refugees are still at large - missing or perhaps still hostages of the Hutu militiamen responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. And the key outside force for that area - France - is evidently not wanted there by either the Rwandans or the rebels in control on the ground.
Such twists and turns, hesitations and disagreements have been typical of the response of the West to the crisis which prompted the UN only on Friday to authorise a 10,000-strong force for the region. Britain backed the idea, though only a week before its officials had privately said that the idea was "madness".
A complex web of influences lay behind the British U-turn. First was the growing fear that the nation's TV screens might be filled until Christmas with images of a million dying Africans (in all the big catastrophes of recent times - Ethiopia in 1984, Somalia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1994 - the politicians acted only when the television pictures roused public opinion to demand action). Then there was the prospect of the death of the ailing President Mobutu of Zaire, who has sucked from the country's ruined economy an immense private fortune which is failing to halt the gradual deterioration of his health in a Swiss clinic. The fear was that his imminent death could complete Zaire's descent into chaos and drag neighbouring states like Uganda, Angola, Zambia and Tanzania in too. Finally there was Mr Major's realisation that it might be a good idea to back France's interventionist stance at a time when his government needs any gratitude it can garner from a head of government in Europe.
Perhaps it worked. Fear of the arrival of a UN task force may have been what underlay the decision of the Hutu gunmen to flee, freeing their hostaged people to return to Rwanda.
Perhaps not. Reports from the ground suggest rather that Zairean Tutsis, having been told that UN troops would not disarm the Hutu militias or separate them from ordinary folk, realised that once the UN arrived the Hutus would be able to stay in Zaire. So on Thursday morning they bombarded the main refugee camp at Mugunga, which is what really caused the gunmen to flee.
Either way the danger now is that everyone will feel that a resolution, of sorts, has been achieved and that all the international community need do is work out the best way of tidying up the aftermath.
History suggests otherwise. The UN relief operation in Somalia cost around $2bn to channel less than $100m of effective emergency relief, according to Mohammed Sahnoun, the man who masterminded the UN relief operation there. The lives of at least 6,000 Somalis and 83 UN peacekeepers were also lost in its Operation Restore Hope.
It was not an isolated example. UN forces were humiliated by the Bosnian Serbs in another example of an ill-prepared and badly managed intervention. Most classically was the previous ignominious deployment of UN troops with no clear mandate in Rwanda in 1994 who were suddenly withdrawn at a crucial juncture, with hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians being massacred around them in an obvious genocide.
Hindsight is always 20:20. It is easy now to say that the international community should have disarmed the Hutu militia when they reached Zaire. It is easy to condemn the racism of the Zairean government, which denied citizenship to the Tutsis who have lived in the east of Zaire for more than 200 years.
But what mechanisms might have been put in place to foresee the violent implications of such decisions?
The odd thing is that such situations should take us by surprise in the first place. Conflicts like this one - which are a by-product of a failed process of creating new nation-states - are all too common. The same thing happened, or is happening still, in Uganda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka and a number of places in Central Asia.
In all these countries power is monopolised by a specific ethnic group. And the absence of a national unifying factor - such as a strong social class with managerial skills or an enlightened and highly committed leadership - offers no countervailing factor. Ethnic differences and traditional enmity are often compounded by bad management. Only 50 years after independence this is hardly surprising; it took centuries of civil wars for Europe to reach the nation-state phase.
Such conflicts occur mostly where people are poor - in Africa and Latin America, and Asia. In the next 50 years the world population will reach nine billion - without a commensurate increase in per capita economic output. Deforestation and desertification will compel entire populations to move from the areas they inhabit today. Yet the chief response of the Western powers has been to cut aid by almost 10 per cent over the last five years and to ignore potential crises in the Third World until they explode onto our TV screens.
Once the United Nations was seen as a possible policemen of such crises. Increasingly the notion of an authoritarian world-government body is seen as unrealistic. But just because solutions cannot be dispensed from one central point in the UN does not mean that nothing can be done.
Drawing lessons from his experience in Somalia, Dr Sahnoun, who has also been a behind-the-scenes UN mediator in a number of major international conflicts over the past two decades, suggested in a lecture to the Catholic Institute for International Relations last year a few pointers on how this could be done.
There was stick as well as carrot. He spoke of new bodies to promote co-operation between the UN and sovereign governments, the creation of a standing intervention force, better regional early-warning systems, a series on mini-Marshall Plans agreed between the Western powers and Third World blocs, a greater heed to the interests of the business community and a strengthening of civil society organisations. The role of merchants and women in particular were crucial, he said, in creating links across tribal boundaries that put pressures on the parties to ethnic conflicts.
The details of his prescription may be open to debate. But the sense that some pre-emptive apparatus is required is less open to question. Pre-emptive measures do work. Why else would 550 American soldiers have been stationed in Macedonia since 1992 to prevent the Balkans war spilling over into a conflagration between Greece and Turkey? The difference, of course, is that there are no major strategic Western interests in most of the benighted regions where ethnic conflict is at its most fierce. Only when a mega-disaster looms does attention focus there - and the debates begin on emergency responses which might never have been necessary if the world was minded to think seriously in the first place.Reuse content