The Quality of Mercy

Alex de Waal is the author of "Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa" (Indiana University Press 1997). He is the director of Justice Africa, London

Globalization has frayed edges. The job of peacekeepers is to knit some of the roughest loose ends together, not only to save the lives of unfortunate residents of strife-torn countries but also to prevent the global order from being riven more deeply. A noble mission, it perhaps can snatch remedies beyond the reach of law and diplomacy. But idealists and realists alike make a poor defense of military intervention, of both the consensual and the forced-entry versions. For each it’s a second best. Bellicose utopians, determined that universal rights be upheld everywhere, see today’s peacekeeping missions as merely the prelude to more, and more clearly defined, operations in the future. Kissinger-school realists concede that humanitarian interventions can--in some exceptional circumstances--serve the national interest.

On one point, the two schools agree: Greater globalization plus chronic insecurity in some countries make it inevitable that military interventions will be indispensable tools of 21st century coercive diplomacy. Unfortunately, however, truly multilateral intervention is a thing of the past. In October 1988, the Nobel committee announced that the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations was the winner of that year’s Peace Prize. As it has so often, it proved something of a poisoned chalice. Just five years later--Oct. 3, 1993, to be precise--multilateral peacekeeping died, according to Dennis C. Jett, former U.S. ambassador to Mozambique and author of “Why Peacekeeping Fails.” On that day, 18 U.S. servicemen died in Mogadishu and, writes Jett, “the expectations that had been so high in late 1988 also died.”

The burial began five months later, on March 31, 1994, with the publication of Presidential Decision Directive No. 25, the outcome of the National Security Council’s post-Mogadishu review of peacekeeping. It blamed the U.N. for a disaster that was all American in its inception, planning and execution. The U.N. was routinely deemed incompetent in Somalia, but it was Centcom in Florida that sent American servicemen to die in the Mogadishu streets (taking several thousand Somalis, militiamen and civilians alike, with them to their graves).


The principle of collective responsibility for peacekeeping did not survive the following five weeks. Presidential Decision Directive 25 was described as a “comprehensive policy framework suited to the realities of the post-Cold War period.” Until this point, the United States had been a willing partner in a multitude of U.N. peacekeeping and peacemaking operations. Henceforth, the United States was to use its Security Council veto and its financial power in the U.N. to ensure that only those operations that met an absurdly stringent set of criteria could go ahead--even if no U.S. forces were to be deployed.

Possibly the most disastrous item of foreign policy legislation to be produced in the Clinton White House, it was undoubtedly the most badly timed. By the time President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 25 into law on May 3, 1994, the government of Rwanda had adopted and implemented a policy of killing every one of its citizens who happened to be Tutsi, along with Hutus who objected. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the “disciplined and coherent choices about which peace operations to support” that the Presidential Decision Directive 25 called for and chose to do nothing. Following to the letter the draft policy, she also objected to other plans for intervention in the fast-developing and bloody situation in Rwanda on the grounds that the costs and exit strategy of the proposed force were not fully specified.


The ghosts of a million Rwandan dead haunt the survivors, killers and witnesses of that central African holocaust. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, commander of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda, whose courage saved thousands of people from certain death but who had to watch helplessly as unnumbered more were dispatched with grenades, guns and machetes, is still tormented by the needless annihilation of the Rwandan Tutsis. Dallaire was famously warned about the impending genocide by a highly placed member of the Rwandan government, who also tipped him off on the location of illegal arms caches. He passed the warning and his recommendation for a preemptive raid on the arms caches to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, which chose not to heed his advice. The day after the genocide was launched, the U.N. Security Council decided to withdraw the peacekeeping force. Some 450 soldiers remained, ill-equipped and outnumbered, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then U.N. secretary general, realized his mistake and, under pressure from African countries and Western public opinion, began to push for a U.N. intervention force to be sent. Dallaire’s chapter in Jonathan Moore’s “Hard Choices”--entitled “The End of Innocence”--should be an obligatory read for every student of international relations.

“The fact that nearly 1,500 highly capable troops from France, Italy and Belgium landed in Kigali within days, with several hundred U.S. Marines standing by in Burundi, to evacuate the expatriates and a few hundred selected Rwandans, and then left in the face of the unfolding tragedy and with full knowledge of the danger confronting the emasculated U.N. force, is inexcusable by any human criteria. [The U.N. Mission] was abandoned by all, including most of our civilian staff (by order), and we were left to fend for ourselves for weeks. That we were left in this state with neither mandate nor supplies--defensive stores, ammunition, medical supplies, or water, and with only survival rations that were either rotten or inedible--is a description of inexcusable apathy by the sovereign states that make up the U.N. that is completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability.”

Kofi Annan was under-secretary general for peacekeeping at the time. Unlike Albright and Clinton, Annan has stopped short of apologizing for his oversight. What does it tell us about the U.N. that not a single official thought fit to resign over the first indisputable genocide since the U.N. Charter was signed?

The U.N. Secretariat has blundered many times, but it is an organization more sinned against than sinning. Dallaire is right to point the finger at “the sovereign states that make up the U.N.” One in particular stands out. Rwanda tested Presidential Decision Directive 25 to destruction. The White House’s judgment was fatally clouded during those weeks in April 1994, when Hutu power launched its final solution. Perhaps the unburied and unmourned dead of Rwanda also torment Clinton and his secretary of state six years on.


Mogadishu and Kigali are the twin totems of warlordism and peacekeeping at the beginning of the 21st century. They are also the twin taboos--spoken of rarely, still more rarely analyzed and understood. William Shawcross’ attempt to write a contemporary account of the U.N.’s peacekeeping role, without trying to understand these episodes and their interpretation, misinterpretation and non-interpretation, is Hamlet without the ghost. On solid ground with Cambodia--the subject of his finest earlier books--Shawcross has missed the wider plot with “Deliver Us From Evil.”

The basis for Shawcross’ book is excellent access to Annan, after he became secretary general, as he worked in New York and traveled to Africa and the Middle East. Some of the personal dimensions of Annan’s job are well-conveyed. But clearly, the secretary general’s charms have worked their spell on Shawcross, whose critical faculties are too often drowned in a gush of sentiment. Flying with Annan to Baghdad in February 1998, for example, he writes:

“The French warned Annan not to underestimate Saddam. They said he was very reflective, poised and well-informed, and he listened well. They told him that his meeting would be long because Saddam spoke slowly and with pauses. ‘Do not try to fill the gap, but engage him with eye contact.’

“On Friday morning Annan and his entourage flew to Baghdad in [French President Jacques] Chirac’s presidential Falcon 900. When he landed he was surprised by the mob of reporters at the airport. He spoke with emotion of his “sacred duty” to come here to find a solution. He told me later that this striking phrase came to him spontaneously.”

Who is the more naive, Annan for thinking he could keep U.N. weapons inspections going by maintaining eye contact with Saddam Hussein, or Shawcross for appearing to believe that Annan’s ‘sacred duty’ phrase was thought up on the spot? Such lapses would matter less if the account of Iraq were not so banal, adding nothing to what is known to most journalists acquainted with the region. It is also damaged by needless mistakes. Although the author signed off in December 1999, he writes that “an end [to U.N. arms searches] is not yet in sight.” In fact there have been no searches since Operation Desert Fox and no prospect of any for the foreseeable future.

Shawcross’ book is marred by rather too many elementary errors. He attributes Somali President Siad Barre’s demise in 1991 to the decline of Soviet power, when in fact Barre had been an American client for more than 10 years. Shawcross gets the lineup in the Congo war wrong. The description of Annan’s visit to post-genocide Rwanda is stunningly simplistic. Annan’s feelings may have been hurt by the abrasive remarks of his hosts. But the Rwandan Tutsis are surely entitled to more than diplomatic sophism from the man who headed the Department of Peacekeeping Operations when the genocide was committed.


“Deliver us from Evil” contributes little to the growing body of work on peacekeeping, humanitarian intervention and conflict resolution. Others have covered the same ground and had more useful things to say.

Clinton movingly apologized to Rwandan genocide survivors on his visit to Africa two years ago. But he did not reverse his stealthy assassination of the principle of collective responsibility for peacekeeping. The consequences are evident in every new crisis that breaks. Hence we see regional powers taking prime responsibility for peacekeeping--for example the Australians leading the way in East Timor and NATO’s reinvention as a humanitarian army for southeast Europe. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, regional responsibility has discomforting consequences. The Nigerian-led West African force was commonly brutal and corrupt, and the limits of its capacity meant that peace deals have entailed giving power to the warlords who visited such devastation on these unfortunate countries in the first place. What mockery does it make of the “Pinochet principle” when Foday Sankoh, whose soldiers have dismembered thousands of Sierra Leoneans, is awarded the rank of vice president of his country? Meanwhile, the excuse for international inaction over Chechnya, that it is a sovereign Russian territory, obscures the fact that the same impotence would almost certainly prevail if Russian forces had crossed into, say, Tajikistan with the aim of “peace enforcement.”

The common theme here is the U.N. franchising its responsibilities. At times, this comes perilously close to the simple doctrine that might is right, provided it stays in its neighborhood and seeks the consent, or at least acquiescence, of Washington. Meanwhile among the powerful, the illusion grows that military power can bring solutions, when it evidently cannot. The first lesson of Kosovo is to learn the lessons of what went before Kosovo.

And what of those countries with complicated wars but no neighbor with the capacity and inclination to bully its way to a least-bad solution? Everyone who has been in the business of peacemaking knows the answer: Each case must be dealt with on its merits, by persuasion, coercion, guile and sometimes plain bribery. Jett, having witnessed the (successful) Mozambican peace process at firsthand and the (failed) Angolan exercise at close remove, has much to say about how peace processes can work, or not. The clear, and pessimistic, lesson that Jett does not need to spell out is that the Mozambicans were extraordinarily lucky. They had a pro-peace consensus among generally supportive neighbors, one party (the Frelimo government) ready to make major compromises, and the other (Renamo) with the modest ambition of coming a respectable second in an election, both parties sufficiently impoverished that they could not sustain an indefinite war and, last, some imaginative and skillful mediators. On each count, Angola was the opposite. It is an illustration of how there may be no solution to a problem, at least not for a while.

Sudan is in many ways as pessimistic a prospect as Angola. As the post-post-Cold War doctrine of regional responsibilities implies, leave it to the Egyptians (northeast Africa’s would-be superpower). But Egypt is scarcely a disinterested player in the upper Nile Valley, and as a former colonial power that has never fully shed its imperial mentality, its actions always generate energetic suspicion, especially among southern Sudanese. A peace settlement in Sudan will entail one of the most complex exercises ever undertaken in cease-fire monitoring, disengagement of forces and peacekeeping. But there is not the slightest hint that the United States, or any other power for that matter, is prepared for the commitment that making peace stick in Sudan would entail.


Concluding his chapter, Dallaire writes, “Peacekeeping cannot be an end in itself--it merely buys time.” Solutions to these terrible conflicts come through the slow process of social and political normalization. More and more, every country’s internal conflicts are the business of its neighbors and indeed the entire world. It is very rare for a country simply to be left to find its own way to a solution--or to fail to do so. We are more informed than ever before. Moral multilateralism, driven in large part by concerned journalists and international human rights groups, is more vigorous than ever. But political multilateralism is in a parlous state. Occasionally, as Michael Ignatieff writes in his contribution to “Hard Choices,” a point is reached at which the “credibility” of Western leaders is at stake, and they feel obliged to intervene. But intervention is no solution, just a pause to think out solutions. Are the powerful states that have the power to make the U.N. succeed or fail ready to commit their diplomats, troops and money for the lengthy periods needed to identify solutions and make them stick?