Who cares about genocide?: Lindsey Hilsum on the United Nations failure in Rwanda that cost 10,000 lives a day

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IN SEPTEMBER, Rwanda is due to take its turn as President of the United Nations Security Council. The government, which appointed itself after President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed, and which still represents Rwanda at the UN, fled the capital six weeks ago.

Compelling evidence suggests that it is largely responsible for massacres in which up to half a million Rwandan citizens have lost their lives in less than two months. By September, the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front, now poised to take Kigali, may be calling itself the government. Or there may be two governments, or none at all.

Whoever represents Rwanda, we can be sure that the UN will talk much of observing the country's sovereignty: the sovereignty of rebels or the sovereignty of murderers. The UN understands sovereignty. What it cannot deal with is the slaughter of civilians within 'sovereign' boundaries.

The UN's failure in Rwanda is stark and unmistakeable. A UN Commission on Human Rights has condemned grave and massive human rights abuse in Rwanda but the commission can take no action without the backing of the Security Council. UN peace-keepers were withdrawn on 21 April, on 16 May the Security Council voted for them to be sent back, but no new troops have yet arrived in Kigali. The dithering can be measured in lives - 10,000 per day's delay. On Wednesday the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, gave his assessment: 'Unfortunately, I failed; it is a scandal. I am the first one to say it and I am ready to repeat it.'

Mr Boutros-Ghali may be too self-critical. The UN is not a united anything so much as a bag of bits. The powers in the Security Council decide one thing, the Secretary-General may disagree, member states have a myriad of ideas, while political and economic reality gives the United States veto powers. Even where there is a clear majority for action, the response can be delayed or stymied because of the special interests of Security Council members - China vetoed action in Cambodia for years. For countries of little strategic political import, such as Haiti or Rwanda, the problem is different: no one cares.

Western governments and voters have yet to be persuaded that there is such a thing as 'international interest', and 'national interest is defined in the US and European Union countries ever more narrowly. No Western government believed that stopping the war in Yugoslavia was worth the life of one of its soldiers, with the result that intervention in Bosnia has been half-hearted and ineffectual. Governments have intervened as much as they feel they have to because of media pressure, but not enough nor at the right time to stop the war.

Meanwhile, conflict is becoming a way of life in Africa and the former Soviet sphere, the parts of the world excluded from functioning regional trading blocks. And while most of the anarchic wars seem far away, they may affect us in ways we had not contemplated. The bodies of slaughtered Rwandans pollute Lake Victoria and the Kagera River, endangering the lives of Ugandans and Tanzanians. The 250,000 Rwandan refugees in Tanzania cut down trees, causing massive environmental damage in a fragile region. Millions of pounds of Western aid will be spent clearing up the mess as well as on humanitarian relief. There is also the question of precedent - if the Haitian and Rwandan governments kill their civilians with impunity, the message goes out that there will be no censure of any government for such acts.

Civil wars do not respect borders. The Yugoslav conflict has broadened with every new stage in the war, and Albania and Macedonia remain at risk. We have been here before. In 1938, Czechoslovakia was 'a far away country of which we know little' and not worth a war.

The international system is inflexibly predicated on the idea of sovereignty. When wars were between countries the system worked. But now most wars are civil wars and most casualties are civilians. John Steinbrummer, Director of Foreign Policy Research at the Brookings Institution in Washington, believes that we need a new doctrine that recognises this. 'We have to find a way of saying that when civil order breaks down, sovereignty is forfeited and the international community can get involved. We need a framework of international law which would define the problem and legitimise action.'

In other words, the breakdown of legal order within a country is a matter of valid international interest, not just humanitarian concern. Mr Steinbrummer believes a framework of international law on reasons for intervention would also help define the issues. One reason the UN faltered in Somalia was that it never defined the problem, nor its objectives. Was the problem famine, the collapse of the state, clan warfare, the proliferation of arms or the behaviour of General Aideed?

There is a similar vagueness about what has gone wrong in Rwanda. UN diplomats negotiate between political and military leaders because that is what they are used to. But Rwandans have died mainly at the hands of the militia, not in the crossfire between government troops and rebels. The UN has spent two months addressing the wrong problem.

'If you are going to tell the UN to conduct serious policing roles, it has got to have its own forces which are not defined by national politics,' said Brian Urquhart, a former UN under-secretary general. He proposes a standing multinational force, at the disposal of the Security Council, and would like to see the UN less dependent on US foreign policy.

The UN cannot change unless powerful governments - most crucially the US government, but also European Union states - decide that 'international interest' may occasionally override national interests. Half a million Rwandans have just paid the price for their lack of vision.