Issue 9 - Article 2

Hope Suspended: Morality, Politics and War in Central Africa

November 1, 1997
James Fennell

James Fennell, formerly Head of the Emergencies Department at CARE, is the Director of Mercurial, a consultancy specialising in complex political emergencies

“…if we publicly say that we were wrong and that moral values exist, and henceforth we shall do what we must to establish and illustrate them, don’t you think that would be the start of hope?”
Albert Camus, 1946.

After the Second World War, universal moral values were seen to be a necessary basis for regulating the conduct of international relations, and were codified in the body of international law. Humanitarian aid policies of most bilateral and multilateral donors were based on upholding these instruments; in particular the provisions of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) (the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and Protocols of 1977) and Refugee Law (the Refugee Convention of 1951 and Protocols of 1967).

The evidence of the Great Lakes tragedy seems to suggest that in recent years there has been a fundamental shift away from ‘establishing and illustrating’ universal moral values towards reaching pragmatic, though often morally suspect, ‘durable solutions’. Over the past three years almost all interested parties have consistently shied away from upholding international law in the face of strategic and economic realities. This article argues that the demise of universal moral values as a basis for aid policy is diminishing our humanity, and has opened the door to barbarity.

Failure to enforce IHL during the Genocide in Rwanda

During the Rwandan Genocide, from April-July 1994, nearly a million people were systematically murdered. It is not the intention of this paper to discuss this crime against humanity in detail, suffice it to say that genocide was the most heinous of crimes committed in the region, and that the prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators remains an outstanding and urgent priority for international action.

The first indication that adherence to IHL would become a consistent victim of the Great Lakes crisis was the UN Security Council’s withdrawal of most of the UNAMIR peace-keepers at the height of the violence. It was only the military invasion by the Tutsi-dominated, Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), which finally brought the killing to an end; in the eyes of many observers, the stark contrast between the efficiency of this ‘African solution’ and the paralysis of the United Nations, vested unilateral military intervention with considerable credibility.

Responding to the RPF’s early signs of adherence to the provisions of the Arusha Accords and respect for IHL – including promises of moves towards a broad-based transitional Government and an end to racist politics – and signs that the quality of humanitarian access was certainly greater on their side, western governments acknowledged the scale of the massacres inside Rwanda and considerable political and military support was directed towards the Tutsi-dominated government.

International law is abandoned in the refugee camps 1994–96

As the RPF advanced through Rwanda, a mass exodus of mostly Hutu civilians was orchestrated into Zaire, Tanzania and, to a lesser extent Burundi. It was immediately clear to aid agencies operating in the camps that observance of IHL and the Refugee Conventions was not on the agenda of either the political organisations controlling the refugees or the Zairean and Burundian authorities (the Tanzanian Government was more responsible). As a result, the quality of ‘humanitarian space’ was very poor – Hutu-supremacist political organisations held sway in the camp; their militia joined forces with the remnant military organisations of the former Rwandan army (ex-FAR) to enforce this oligarchy; the Zairean authorities colluded with them for political and economic advantage and the Tanzanian police were too weak to wrest back control. Only in Burundi, where the Tutsi-dominated army controlled the countryside, were these authorities challenged through the forced repatriation of most refugees in 1995 and 1996.

Attempts by UN agencies and NGOs operating in the camps to avoid accommodation with the political aims of these organisations were met with threats and actual violence. These acts were in direct contravention of the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Protocols of 1967; with proper investigation, and due judicial process, the intimidators could have faced expulsion back to Rwanda under article 33 of the Refugee Convention. The impotence of UNHCR in the face of such brazen abuses of refugee status brought an angry response from international NGOs, culminating in the withdrawal of several from the camps in Zaire (including CARE International and MSF-F and subsequently MSF-I), in September 1994. In the case of MSF, the withdrawal was permanent.

With hindsight, it seems clear that the host country, the UN and OAU member states failed to act in defence of either the spirit or letter of Refugee Law. The problem, gradually recognised by NGO and UN agency staff alike, came to be characterised as a lack of ‘political will’, by either the host country (Mobutist Zaire, in particular) or the UN (particularly the permanent members on the Security Council). Once the international community’s resolve to enforce IHL was revealed as a sham, Hutu-supremacist camp authorities were able to narrow effective ‘humanitarian space’ to a degree where agencies were faced with a stark choice: either provide assistance to refugees under terms set by the camp authorities or get out. Most agencies chose the former, while continuing to call for ‘political action’. But to have any chance of providing assistance meant accepting considerable diversion of relief goods by camp authorities, diversions which subseqently provided the secure resource base for financing cross-border incursions, buttressing Mobutu’s Hutu-dominated political power base in Kivu, and re-equipping forces for a planned re-invasion of Rwanda.

Once it was clear that the international community was prepared to side-step requirements of international law, criticism of Mobutu’s flagrant support for the hardline camp authorities was muted. This accommodation with Mobutu culminated in the UNHCR financing and training of a Zairean army ‘contingent’ to provide security for aid operations in the camps, a contingent which went on to fight alongside ex-FAR and Hutu militia’s against ADFL forces in November 1996.

Rwanda: international law off the agenda

By early 1995, all the warring parties had shown a willingness to abandon respect for IHL if required to make a choice between humanitarian values and political priorities: a shift in policy focus became apparent within the new Rwandan government as elimination of the threat of a Hutu-supremacist invasion became the priority, clearly demonstrated when thousands of displaced Hutu civilians were killed by the RPA during operations to empty a camp at Kibeho in southwest Rwanda.

By early 1996, although political attempts to end the growing power of Hutu militia in Zaire were once again on the Security Council’s agenda after an escalation of cross-border incidents, and the clear inability of aid agencies to prevent diversions of aid to the camp authorities, the interpretation of ‘political action’ by humanitarian agencies and Security Council members was vastly different. The latter’s principal concern was to achieve a ‘durable solution’ in the region rather than to enforce observance of IHL, with member countries’ national strategic interests influencing the shape of such a ‘durable solution’.

International Law Defeated: the Civil War in Congo-Zaire 1996–97

By 1996, Kagame had learned two critical lessons about international humanitarianism: the time when humanitarian agencies were able to garner sufficient international political support to enforce humanitarian principles was rapidly drawing to a close and that in these circumstances (such as eastern Zaire) there was evidence of an unseemly readiness to accommodate with the aims of the ruling political authority in a trade-off for limited access. So far, these traits had gone against Kagame. The time had come to turn them to Rwanda’s advantage.

In November 1996, after the ADFL captured Kivu, Kabila and his supporters, including Britain and the USA denounced French (and ECHO) calls for military intervention to uphold IHL as politically motivated; the protection of IHL through international military intervention was said to be detrimental to the rapid achievement of a ‘lasting solution’ to the Great Lakes crisis. Thus the Canadian led Multi-National Force did not stand a chance of being deployed inside Zaire. Of course, implicit in this argument was the by now apparent logic that defending humanitarian values was of secondary concern to achieving pragmatic political objectives.

Throughout 1995-6, media coverage had focused on aid agency accommodation with the Hutu camp authorities; ‘Feeding killers’ came to be a commonplace description of UNHCR and NGO operations in the camps. After the civil war broke out, this press campaign reached frenzied proportions in the UK and US. It appeared that the choice facing UK and US policy-makers seemed to be either a massive military intervention to enforce IHL or political and military assistance for the ADFL – an ‘African solution’ which, it was hoped, would emulate the RPF in Rwanda and succeed where 2½ years of half-hearted international intervention had failed. And if a few people died along the way, so be it.

Unfortunately they did, by the thousand. The 600,000 people repatriated during November-December from Tanzania and Goma came to be viewed as the only legitimate refugees; those who remained could then be written off as ‘genocidaire’ and somehow ‘morally’ beyond the protection of IHL.

Between November 1996 and September 1997, perhaps as many as 100,000 of these so-called ‘genocidaire’ were killed by forces loyal to the ADFL and its allies. When humanitarian assistance was finally allowed to reach the remnants of this population, it was only sanctioned on the condition that a rapid repatriation would take place. When repatriation seemed in jeopardy, Kabila and Kagame put the pressure the back on by closing down what little humanitarian access they had allowed.

It is well known to those who worked in Kisangani that the health crisis among refugees was a direct consequence of the denial of ‘humanitarian space’ required to prevent humanitarian disasters. Without an incentive to observe IHL, it was possible for ADFL to use tactics against the Interahamwe and ex-FAR leadership which rested on weakening the remnant refugee populations en masse (combatants and civilians alike) through the encouragement of sickness and malnutrition. As has been pointed out with reference to other recent African wars, the denial of ‘humanitarian space’ appears to be a cornerstone of military strategy. It is significant that humanitarian access could only be secured by aid agencies once the desired humanitarian crisis was well advanced, and the civilian support base for the Interahamwe and ex-FAR physically broken.

The ADFL’s key international supporters encouraged this highly effective – if inhuman – military strategy: many undoubtedly colluded in its implementation. Western media outlets continue to voice support for this African solution, despite the evidence of its enormous human cost. Its apparent success in resolving the conflict has reinforced the new consensus around the redundancy of IHL.

Meanwhile, humanitarian agencies continued the now established pattern of ditching humanitarian principles in the face of unsympathetic political authorities. As a direct result, humanitarian assistance for those at most risk was subordinated to the requirement for repatriation. This must represent a new low for humanitarian principles.


The most depressing aspect of the Great Lakes tragedy has been this apparent willingness of all parties to the conflict, including UN and NGO humanitarian relief agencies and donors, to abandon IHL in the face of political imperatives.

Humanitarian space was only provided when access to populations and the provision of assistance was in synergy with political or geopolitical aims. The absolute values of IHL would now seem to be largely replaced by relative ‘conflict management’ objectives designed to achieve a strategically or economically favourable peace. Thus achieving a suitable ‘peace’ is the new touchstone for international intervention in African wars. What, so far, does not seem to have been given much thought, is the precedent this sets for the conduct of politics in Africa. If pragmatic support for unilateral military solutions has replaced multilateral action grounded in IHL, then what hope is there for ending the so-called ‘culture of impunity’? And what can the future hold for ordinary citizens ruled by political authorities that believe political ends justify barbaric means? As Camus once wrote ‘It is better to be wrong by killing no-one rather than be right with mass graves’.

Further reading

Best G. (1994), War and Law Since 1945, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

UNESCO (ed.) (1988) International Dimensions of Humanitarian Law, Henri Dunant Institute, Geneva.

Darcy J., (1997) Human Rights and International Legal Standards: what relief workers need to know. RRN Network Paper No. 19, ODI, London.

Duffield M., (1996) Symphony of the Damned, Disasters Vol 20(3), Blackwells, London.

ECHO (ed.) (1996) Stockton N., (1997) Rwanda: Rights and Racism, Proceedings of Ethics in Humanitarian Aid: NGO Forum, Dublin, December 9-10 1996.

de Waal A., Contemporary Warfare in Africa: Changing Context, Changing Strategies, IDS Bulletin Vol. 27(3), 1996.


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