Playing games with human tragedy

November 22, 1996|By Jonathan Power

LONDON -- I do not say with Nietzsche ''There are whole

peoples who have failed'' and close my eyes. But I do say this humanitarian-aid business is in danger of becoming something of an industry where amplification of human need in order to rouse public opinion and government action walks a fine line with the more self-serving motives of keeping the aid charities fully employed.

Aid agencies are not disinterested actors in human tragedies, even if many of their heroic personnel often are. The institutions' very existence, not to mention the monthly stipends for their bureaucracies, depends on disasters coming at regular intervals.

Three genocides

Since World War II, there have only been three major occasions of mass genocide: one in Cambodia, one in Burundi and one in Rwanda. Each time, perhaps all too understandably, horror has led the aid agencies to assume (or assert) that the crisis was fathomless and that history inevitably must repeat itself.

William Shawcross in his seminal study, ''The Quality of Mercy,'' a dissection of what happened in Cambodia in 1979, reveals the mis- Jonathan Power

representations and incompetence of many of the world's charities. They range from the reputable, such as Oxfam, which refused to accept the word of its local representative, who said people were poor and malnourished but not dying of hunger, to the idiotic, like La Leche League, which offered to send in a plane loaded with lactating women.

The truth was that the hungry refugees massed on the Thai border were not, as claimed, the tip of an iceberg. Cambodians deprived of rice found they could live on fish, roots of lotus flowers and fruits. The refugees on the Thai border were, as the genocidal Khmer Rouge saw it, an army-in-waiting being fed and tended and enabled to live and fight another day.

The same is the story with the Hutu people in eastern Zaire. Two years ago I wrote a column suggesting that if these Hutu refugees were not given food (except for children and the infirm) they would break with their political and military masters, the instigators of the genocide against the Tutsis, and head back for home in Rwanda. Now the Tutsi militias of eastern Zaire have done the job by warfare.

Enemy's enemy

In the Cambodian case, the Thai government and probably the U.S. played politics with the aid agencies. They had reason to support the murderous Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese- installed regime of Heng Samrin.

In the Rwanda-Zaire case, too, Machiavellian undercurrents activate the Western participants. France, usually the major outside influence in this part of the world, has been sidelined by the Anglo-Saxons. French military intervention in 1994 undoubtedly saved lives, but it helped the Hutu perpetrators of genocide escape to Zaire.

The U.S. and Britain, and to some extent Canada, have backed the Tutsi regime in Rwanda. While this is difficult to fault on humanitarian grounds, it does appear to be part of a grand strategy to outflank the French in the region. By the discreet use of military aid, the U.S. is building up in east Africa a chain of friendly states including Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda, which will join the bid to topple the ultra-Islamist, terrorist-supporting regime in Sudan.

The big prize in this modern-day ''scramble for Africa'' is Zaire, rich in minerals and now probably disintegrating as its long-time strongman Mobutu Sese Seko lies ill with cancer. If the Anglo-Saxons can stay close to the Tutsis of Zaire, who seem intent on making a bid for power, maybe they have a chance of dislodging French influence.

ZTC

White House delusion

The White House is deluding itself if it is engaged in such convoluted Realpolitik. Zaire has been a quicksand for outsiders ever since the Belgians gave it independence in 1960.

The best approach for both relief agencies and outside governments is the straightforward one. Breaking the logjam in the Hutu camps provides the opportunity. The aid agencies should resist the temptation to hype the need for instant compassion, however jaded they think our consciences have become. And Western governments should realize that their competition does not help Africa, only their cooperating on common objectives.

Right now they need to fortify the war-crimes tribunal in Tanzania and help the local authorities in Rwanda and Zaire round up the ringleaders for trial. If an outside intervention force is still necessary, this is the job it should concentrate on.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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