the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
The Stewardship Union can propose a single stewardship for the world, can be right in theory and pure of heart. We can spend centuries building it individual by individual, as a positive, constructive act. But the misery which will take place in the meantime is intolerable. As advocates for stewardship ideals, we must encourage those in a position to influence affairs at the highest levels to use that influence for good. The prospect of a new world order may frighten some individuals. There will certainly be controversy over the loss of national sovereignty. Without a compelling reason, politicians would be unwilling to risk that controversy. But politicians are human. Most of them have consciences, and these consciences will eventually force them to accept that there are some causes worth risking a career over. These causes are not always in clear relief, and they will not always tend towards stewardship. But an extraordinary disaster may have illuminated the problem just long enough to change that. If the world cannot act on this opportunity, another will present itself; but that will mean that we have allowed the unspeakable to happen yet again.
For translation of an unfamiliar word, place the cursor over the word.
What exactly is a disaster? When does the humanitarian need to respond to suffering finally rouse the compassionate to action? How much misery can we witness and still sleep at night?
For four hundred years, Rwanda was a stable but stratified society. The abaHutu and the abaTutsi, popularly considered to be ethnic groups, were in fact castes, and probably of the same ethnic stock. The abaTutsi kept cattle, and from their numbers was drawn the ruling élite of the society, including the monarch. The abaHutu, who outnumbered the abaTutsi six to one, were the farmers. There was a single culture, religion, and language. The castes lived intermingled and interdependently throughout the country, and even intermarried, the offspring belonging to the caste of the father. On occasion, a Hutu could become a Tutsi, though this was rare, and the reverse, for obvious reasons, was even more so. A biological stereotype, with only a limited basis in fact, held that the abaTutsi were taller, thinner, lighter skinned, more aquiline of feature. As such they would more closely resemble Europeans, and for this reason as much as for the previous nature of their society, the abaTutsi were strongly favored by the successive powers of the colonial era, Deutschland (until the first world war) and België. Formal education and social power were reserved largely for the abaTutsi; and they were therefore better positioned, for decades, to benefit from the technological modernization of Rwanda. In 1959, when the abaHutu rose in frustration and resentment, the Belgiker, displeased with Tutsi calls for independence, abruptly reversed policy and supported the abaHutu, who overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. Thousands of abaTutsi fled the country, most notably to Uganda, where they were to spend thirty years in exile.
In 1962, after having drastically altered Rwandan society and exploited much of the land’s wealth, the Belgiker finally withdrew. The abaHutu, empowered at last, repaid the abaTutsi repression for repression, especially after 1973, when Habyarimana Juvénal, the defense minister, took power in a coup d’état. The abaTutsi, well-educated and unused to subjugation, resisted; on occasion, they were massacred, with the complicity of the government. The exile community in Uganda became the staging ground for an armed rebellion. In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, an army mostly of abaTutsi, invaded Rwanda from the north. Its attack on the capital of Kigali was thwarted only with the help of the français military, which had been dispatched for the evacuation of français nationals. The français government had been the chief supporter, militarily, economically, and diplomatically, of the Habyarimana régime. It maintained a military presence in Rwanda as the civil war continued for three years, during which additional massacres of Tutsi civilians took place.
Arusha, in Tanzania, was the site of the accords which were supposed to end the war. In 1993 August, the government and the RPF agreed on principles of power-sharing and national unity. The implementation proceeded slowly, though, and on 1994 April 6 Habyarimana and Ntaryamira Cyprien, the Hutu president of Burundi, were returning to Kigali from another attempt in Arusha to resolve the strife. Both rulers were killed when their plane was shot down on the approach to the airport. Though suggestions implicating the RPF and even the français were made, most outside observers believed that abaHutu of the presidential guard, angered at the power-sharing agreement, had assassinated the Hutu who had signed it.
Nonetheless, suspicion in Rwanda was, perhaps logically, directed at the RPF, and literally within minutes abaTutsi and liberal abaHutu began dying at the hands of Hutu soldiers and civilians. Among the first to die were those liberal abaHutu in a position to mitigate the massacre; Hutu premier Uwingiliyimana Agathe, in power because of the Arusha accords, died in the first hours following the crash, along with several members of her cabinet. Throughout the society, any Tutsi, and any Hutu who might oppose the Hutu extremists, was immediately killed.
The speed and efficiency of the slaughter suggest that it was planned; captured government documents establish the fact. It was orchestrated over many months by the same clique of Hutu extremists who eventually shot down Habyarimana’s plane. They knew how to delegate: perhaps a hundred thousand individuals were involved in the genocide. Those who were not members of the government armed forces were mostly members of two groups, the interahamwe and the impuzamugbmi, originally set up as youth wings of Hutu political parties, explicitly anti-Tutsi and often receiving training from the military.
Naturally, the RPF invaded again. As they advanced, ordinary abaHutu fled, told by the extremists to fear reprisal for the killings which were still taking place. Whole villages moved as one. A quarter million crossed the eastern border in twenty-four hours, an unprecedented human flood that created, literally overnight, the second-largest settlement in Tanzania. Another night, a hundred thousand crossed to Goma, in Zaïre. The français government responded to the refugee crisis by creating, with UN blessing, a protected zone in the southwest fifth of Rwanda. By July 18, the remainder of the country, including Kigali, was in the hands of the RPF. The Hutu government and its army were driven into Zaïre. The killing was effectively over.
The population of Rwanda had been around eight million, making it the densest country in Africa. By July, the population was five million. Two million, mostly abaHutu, had fled the country for Zaïre, Tanzania, Burundi, and Uganda. The remaining million, including well more than half of all the abaTutsi, were dead ― very nearly the final solution to the group conflict in Rwandan civilization.
There were two million internal refugees still in the country, primarily in the français zone, and a greater number who had left the country. Goma alone was home to more than a million. As in all refugee crises, the displaced had left behind everything for a place that was not designed to support them. And there were a million corpses floating around, floating in fact down the rivers and in the lakes which were needed to supply water for the refugees. Without clean water and proper sanitation, cholera and dysentery became epidemic, claiming fifty thousand lives in a single three-week period. Ordinary dehydration also killed quickly, and malnutrition began to take lives slowly. There were problems with malaria, measles, and meningitis as well, and, of course, countless gruesome cases of trauma.
Facing at last a recognizable disaster, the international community belatedly responded. Though there was criticism, the response could be called a success. Acting through international agencies, especially the United Nations, dozens of governments provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. The relief effort, while supplying food and shelter, also sensibly attended to the need for clean water and sanitation. Hospitals were established, and electrolytes and antibiotics were administered. Roads were repaired, airports reopened, tent cities erected.
The real solution, well-known from the beginning, was repatriation, and that was addressed also. Provisions were made to distribute food aid at home, and to provide the seed, cuttings, fertilizer, and tools needed to resume agriculture (Rwanda had been basically self-sufficient in food production, but crops were looted, destroyed, and left to rot during the crisis). Security was eventually established in the camps, allowing those who wished to return to avoid reprisals from the Hutu extremists who now ran the camps. The constant radio broadcasts which had sparked the exodus to begin with and now discouraged return were finally countered with UN broadcasts, an important step in Rwandan culture. Urban infrastructure (water, sanitation, electricity, hospitals, roads), environmental protection, and AIDS awareness (perhaps a fifth of Kigali was HIV+) were all taken into account. Longer-term problems were recognized: the economy of Rwanda declined by half over the crisis; one or two hundred thousand children were orphaned, and would need not only basic support but education.
Among the one hundred forty humanitarian agencies in Rwanda were many private groups, foremost as always the Red Cross (the International Committee and numerous local chapters), and other groups, such as Catholic Relief Services, Médecins sans frontières, World Vision, CARE, Oxfam, and Save the Children. Governments responded individually, especially through their militaries, which provided some protection (as with France) but much of the logistical support (as with the United States). But the organization expected to take the lead, to furnish coordination, and eventually execute much of the effort, was the United Nations. The High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Development Program, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, the Children’s Fund, and the International Organization for Migration were all involved.
These groups are, by and large, skilled at handling aftermath. But dealing with the consequences was not what was required. As soon as it became clear that genocide was taking place, all of the states signatory to the international Conventions on Genocide were obligated to intervene. Instead, the international community demanded a cease-fire between the government and the RPF, not ignorant of but deliberately ignoring the fact that the attacks were against unarmed civilians, not the RPF. (Indeed, because ten peacekeepers from België monitoring the Arusha accords were killed with Uwingiliyimana, the UN actually withdrew most of its presence.) It can be argued that the RPF acted out of self-interest; the targets of the slaughter comprised the same abaTutsi and liberal abaHutu. But this presumption of fellow-feeling underlines the parochialism of the rest of the world. Those dying were humans, but there was no aggressive response by the human community. Whatever its motives, whatever its actions before or since, the RPF put the world to shame in 1994. It brought to an end what the world had pledged never to let happen again.
Is the current system for dealing with global disasters serving us well? With a million dead and more than four million displaced in the span of three months, and at least a million refugees remaining after three years, clearly not. The response to the exodus was adequate ― barely. The response to the genocide was pathetic. The behavior leading up to the genocide left much of the world culpable.
If the colonial period had never happened, the abaHutu would still have decided, in the course of the twentieth century, that minority élite rule was unacceptable. If they had succeeded in the establishment of a democracy, there would certainly have been concerns on the part of the abaTutsi about minority rights. Mass communication and the emerging global culture would have heavily impacted the caste system. But the Europeans deliberately withheld modern education from the abaHutu, and then abruptly disenfranchised the abaTutsi, and had already exploited the natural resources and labor for their own purposes. Colonialism was never benign.
The Habyarimana government, though Hutu, was minority rule nonetheless, and would not have survived without outside assistance. It was the recipient of military and financial aid from many other governments. This autocratic and murderous régime actually had a seat on the UN security council throughout the genocide. Such is the byzantine geopolitical game that rules the world.
It must be remembered that the United Nations was designed as the collective of the states of Earth. It is largely run by the security council, a mere fifteen of those states. If the United Nations is to serve as the lead institution in the prevention, mitigation, and relief of international disasters, it cannot function as a committee of competing global interests.
Those states that consider themselves humanitarian must be prepared to surrender some of their individual sovereignty to create an independent, effective, global humanitarian institution. They must take seriously the principles upon which the United Nations was founded and then give it the authority to act on those principles. A universal code, already partially in existence in the complex system of treaties and conventions known as international law, must be made automatically enforceable. Trade sanctions, including arms embargoes, and diplomatic isolation must take place immediately. A slush fund must be available so that UN operations will not need to wait months, or years, for financial pledges to be made good. But ultimately the UN needs independent authority to go to any part of the world, at any time, in force if necessary. That would require an expanded logistical capability for a more centralized response and relief agency, and it would require a standing army.
This would all be subject to oversight and review, of course. But the well-equipped military of a single mid-level state (South Africa or Canada, for example) could by itself have entered Rwanda and ended the genocide, probably within the week, and provided the presence which would have eliminated the impetus for much of the refugee crisis. It could have facilitated the safe entry of relief workers and efficient distribution of aid in what would have been a much smaller disaster. It is hard to imagine how this outcome could have been criticized.
There is a historical process by which international institutions ― conventions, standards, organizations like the UN ― become more enlightened than the mean of their constituencies. Tyrannical states will sign very liberal human-rights accords. But if these states cannot be relied upon to sanction the creation of real enforcement mechanisms for the enlightened standards of global agreement, then the humanitarian states must form a new institution, and provide it with the means to uphold these standards.
There are practical reasons, to be sure. A centralized response would be more efficient than that of the dozens of public and private agencies that show up at international disasters. It would be quicker and more cost-effective. If it could prevent or mitigate even some of the disasters which happen periodically around the world, it would save billions of dollars; it would pay for itself.
But such an argument is cynical. The only necessary reason for a more active response to crises like Rwanda is moral. If a single institution with proper funding, equipment, personnel, and authority, operating under established guidelines designed to identify such crises immediately, had existed in 1994, it could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. It would have cost the states of the world nothing more than the inability, at some future date, to claim that grave injustice is an internal matter. Surely after Rwanda there is enough shame to justify that expense.
- Annals of Emergency Medicine: 1996 December
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