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United Nations has its faults but plays a vital role in helping to avoid genocide

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The United Nations does not have the troop numbers to forcibly disarm the militias in the Central African Republic or intimidate them into dumping arms but it is successful in that its presence is ensuring that rebels in Bambari and outside the town refrain from massacring their opponents Photo: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations does not have the troop numbers to forcibly disarm the militias in the Central African Republic or intimidate them into dumping arms but it is successful in that its presence is ensuring that rebels in Bambari and outside the town refrain from massacring their opponents Photo: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations does not have the troop numbers to forcibly disarm the militias in the Central African Republic or intimidate them into dumping arms but it is successful in that its presence is ensuring that rebels in Bambari and outside the town refrain from massacring their opponents Photo: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

I doubt very much there is such a thing as closure. It already feels like a word from a bygone age - the age of fluffy, half-thought-out ideas that preceded our current epoch of ideological knife fights.

There is no closure. The dark experiences of another time cannot be erased or "closed". There is what is accepted or not, what you look in the face or turn away from. The windows that open on to the past are never locked.

I have just come back from a part of Africa I avoided for nearly a decade having realised that avoidance did not bring closure.

For the first decade after the Rwandan genocide, I was almost obsessively preoccupied with understanding how people in one small village had set about murdering their neighbours in the spring of 1994. I had gone to the place when bodies were still strewn in the grounds of the church where the Tutsi people of Nyarubuye sought sanctuary. I made friends there. I returned repeatedly. Rwanda was the defining moment of my life in journalism, perhaps too much so.

After that, everything I did was subjected to a perverse yardstick: well, at least it isn't as bad as Rwanda.

Then I began to find I could no longer cope with the dreams and flashbacks that came unbidden with ever-greater regularity. I felt as if something immense and malign was reaching out of the past to destroy me. This was where my head was. It did not reflect the reality. So I turned away. I stopped visiting. I stopped writing about Rwanda.

I still cannot bring myself to go back there. For all its vaunted progress in health and education, the tidy streets and booming construction, President Kagame's country is effectively a police state.

One of the great lessons of pre-genocide Rwanda - that you do not create stability by crushing dissent - is ignored in the interests of preserving the power of one party.

But this is not a column about Rwanda. It is about the value of the United Nations. I was back in the geographical heart of Africa last week, in a country not very far from Rwanda, a place with a very present potential for genocide.

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been mostly known as a basket case since independence from France in 1960. It was used as a military base by the French, who indulged a succession of authoritarian rulers, among them the self-proclaimed "emperor" Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who murdered schoolchildren and made a present of diamonds to President Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

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Mr d'Estaing's support for murderous dictators is little remembered these days. It happened in Africa where, in the infamous words of Francois Mitterrand, "genocide is not too important".

The CAR has gone through three years of massacre and instability. To their credit it was the French who brought the initial spasm of slaughter under control. They then departed and the job is now being done by the United Nations.

I watched the UN fail dismally in Rwanda, largely because the big powers made sure it did not have the resources for the job. On the Security Council, the United States and Britain lobbied actively to ensure a dearth of meaningful action. It was a shameful episode that will forever stain the legacy of the Clinton administration.

In CAR, the mission - known as MINUSCA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR) - faces many of the same problems that bedevilled the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR).

In CAR, there are too few troops - only 12,000 in a country the size of Ukraine - and the Security Council has little or no interest in increasing that number.

The mission ensured notoriety when it failed to address in time horrendous allegations of child sexual abuse by its soldiers. The quality of troops is, to put it delicately, uneven. The Mauritanians I went on patrol with in the beleaguered town of Bambari were disciplined and looked tough enough to meet any contingency.

There are Portuguese and Rwandans with the wherewithal and will to fight. Others I came across were less confidence-inspiring. A detachment from the Democratic Republic of Congo was sent home because of allegations of child abuse and exploitation. Others are accused of murdering civilians and burying the bodies outside their base.

Like all UN missions, MINUSCA is subject to bureaucratic manoeuvrings at every level, from New York to the remote outposts, and also to the interests of regional power players anxious to see their own proxies gain influence.

So all in all there is a lot to criticise. But what then? Who else will stop Bambari descending into slaughter? The place is bristling with guns and hatred. There are militias in the town and outside who would massacre their ethnic and political enemies tomorrow were it not for the UN presence. I sat among the straw huts of displaced people huddled next to a UN base and listened to stories of the attacks that destroyed their villages. The UN does not have the troop numbers to forcibly disarm the militias or intimidate them into dumping arms. But the hardy Mauritanians and the helicopters of the Senegalese detachment are so far ensuring guns are not used on the civilians of Bambari.

The tentative peace in the town may not last. Now the Trump administration is threatening cuts to US contributions to the UN budget. America supplies 28.57pc of the peacekeeping funds, a figure often ignored by those who are ideologically anti-American.

The old compact whereby America paid while others did the fighting for peace is under genuine threat. The Central African Republic is already far down the priority list of international conflict resolution. Shorn of American funding, the UN mission would have to be drastically scaled back.

I said this column wasn't about Rwanda. I was wrong. It is about Rwanda if you believe, as I do, that Rwanda was about all of us, about the kind of world in which we wish to live. The UN we have is deeply flawed. But when things fall apart it is the only UN we have.

Fergal Keane is a BBC special correspondent.


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