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Responding to the crisis in Congo-Zaire: emergency feeding of Rwandan refugees, May-July 1997

Responding to the crisis in Congo-Zaire: Emergency feeding of Rwandan refugees, May-July 1997

We asked Alex de Waal of Africa Rights to comment on Susanne Jaspars' article. He wrote the following letter as a response.

Dear Editor,

The attempts to provide emergency relief to Rwandese displaced in eastern Zaire in 1997 were undertaken against formidable odds. Susanne Jaspars describes the effort, and the attempts to learn from the Joint Evaluation of emergency assistance to Rwanda. Unfortunately, by May 1997, it was already too late for any successful humanitarian programme to be mounted. As Jaspars describes, the humanitarian space provided by the surviving Interahamwe and former FAR on the one hand, and the victorious ADFL and its friends on the other, was very small.

The civilians--both Rwandese and Zairean--who died in this civil war were victims, not only of violence and man-made hunger, but of a monumental failure of international humanitarianism over the previous few years. As is now well-documented, the international response to the genocide of the Rwandese Tutsis provided much material and moral support to the genocidaires who had fled to neighbouring countries, taking huge civilian populations with them as hostages, human shields and a captive constituency. But some of the wider legal and political implications of these facts were missed.

According to international law, a refugee is someone who has crossed an international border on account of a well-founded fear of persecution. For the vast majority of displaced Rwandese in Zaire and Tanzania, this did not apply: their persecutors were chiefly those who had organised their flight and were in fact running the camps. For a camp to have refugee status, it should be demilitarised and moved away from the border: neither of these were done. Normally, the host government is responsible for awarding asylum, but UNHCR is mandated to play a prominent role in protecting asylum seekers and ensuring that their asylum cases are fairly handled. In the case of Zaire, notably, the government was neither ready nor willing to undertake this task, and UNHCR responded by simply treating all the displaced as refugees. To some extent, UNHCR was a victim of forces beyond its control; but it also welcomed its prominent role in central Africa, reflecting its dominance of emergency relief delivery in former Yugoslavia. UNHCR--and many of the agencies working alongside it--were therefore undermining refugee law in acting in the way they did.

Other aspects of international humanitarian law were also violated, openly or otherwise, by major humanitarian agencies. The Genocide Convention was not enforced. When the war began in eastern Zaire in mid-1996, relief agencies spoke about international humanitarian law prohibiting attacks on refugee camps and requiring a cease-fire for the delivery of humanitarian aid. This was an extremely partial reading of IHL. Above all, humanitarian law has nothing to say about military intervention, which was called for with extreme rapidity by a range of relief agencies.

The specific cases in which humanitarian agencies selectively ignored IHL, and the general sense of impunity with which the agencies operated during the period 1994-6, led to a deep estrangement between them and many political forces in the region. This approach was not only legally questionable, it was practically disastrous. After the battle at Mugunga in November 1997, Laurent Kabila was unlikely to co-operate with foreign agencies that had been calling for foreign troops to block his advance. It was simply too late for the agencies to regain the confidence of the ADFL. And they must bear a large measure of responsibility for that, and for the human tragedies that followed.

In effect, by expanding the political space within which international agencies could operate, and bestowing an unprecedented immunity on international relief operations, the agencies violated the delicate balance between military necessity and humanitarian principle that is the foundation of IHL. It is not surprising that military forces responded by moving towards the opposite extreme.

Yours, etc.,
Alex De Waal

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Alex de Waal (1998). Responding to the crisis in Congo-Zaire: emergency feeding of Rwandan refugees, May-July 1997. Field Exchange 3, January 1998. p21. www.ennonline.net/fex/3/crisis

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