Intervention in Rwanda?

June 21, 1994

The peace-keepers' watchword in crises should emulate the physicians' Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. The French offer to speed troops into Rwanda risks violating it. But such is the frustration at mounting an African-manned United Nations expedition that Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali approves the French plan and the Security Council is poised to approve it.

Rwandans are dying. Militia of Hutu youths, instructed by the army, are methodically slaughtering educated Hutus and all manner of the Tutsi minority, even in U.N.-protected camps. The world's conscience is uneasy.

But the 5,500-man force planned to augment the 490 lightly armed U.N. soldiers there now is slow getting off the drawing board. Mr. Boutros-Ghali asked 50 nations to contribute. Some 19 made pledges, including nine African countries. The U.S. offer is 50 armored personnel carriers to carry African troops.

Into this vacuum, France offers 1,000 of its own troops for starters, with another 1,000 standing by and some African countries of the French Community possibly going along, until the U.N. gets its act together. Who could turn this down?

The Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), the minority-led rebel force taking over the country, for one. Its leadership calls this aggression because France armed the Hutu army of the assassinated tyrant, Juvenal Habyarimana, which is perpetrating slaughter. Those on the receiving end of genocide may be forgiven paranoia, and the RPF fears that French intervention would protect the murderers, not the victims. "Any French intervention will be extraordinarily badly received," said a French aid expert, Bernard Granjon, head of Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World).

But, "Our operation is purely humanitarian and neutral," protests France's U.N. representative, Jean-Bernard Merimee. "We shall not intervene and we shall not take sides. We are concerned with saving lives and protecting civilians, period."

If that is what France would do, the world and Rwandans should be grateful. But first, France should convince the RPF of its good intentions. The RPF is the most disciplined force in Rwanda, and it is making the right noises about setting up a coalition transitional regime.

For a French detachment to wind up fighting the RPF in behalf of the murderous government would be grotesque. Normally, peace cannot be kept until it is made. Anything else is intervention. Adding a day to the life of the present Rwandan government would prolong the killing of Rwandan civilians. Any intervention should stop the slaughter by government forces.

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