From .................. AMERICA [ Jesuit publication ]
FEBRUARY 24, 1996
BURUNDI EDGES TOWARD SUICIDE
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, made a quick tour last month of Angola, Liberia, Rwanda and Burundi. These four subSaharan countries have been described as "oceans of misfortune," and although the metaphor is Homeric in style, it is accurate in fact.
In an interview on Jan. 30 with Charlayne Hunter-Gault on Public Broadcasting's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," the Ambassador talked about her trip. She was particularly concerned about the current crisis in Burundi, a small, crowded and miserably poor country in east-central Africa.
Close to 60 percent of Burundi's approximately 6 million people are nominally Roman Catholics, but they belong to different ethnic groups. Eighty-five percent are Hutu and 14 percent are Tutsi. The Tutsi, however, control the Government, the army and the economy, and they are now under expanding attack by the resentful Hutu majority.
Burundi, Mrs. Albright said, "is on the verge of committing national suicide" in a genocidal civil war like the one that laid waste its next-door neighbor, Rwanda, in the spring of 1994.
Ms. Hunter-Gault reminded the Ambassador that critics, including U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, have accused the United States and the rest of the international community of not doing nearly enough for undeveloped countries like Burundi before they reach the point of blowing themselves up.
Mrs. Albright pretty much conceded that the criticisms were justified, and in any case they could hardly have been rebutted. Only the day before, the U.N. Security Council had walked in circles around the Burundi question. At that session on Jan. 29 the council did pass a resolution calling for restraint, reconciliation and the rule of law in Burundi, but that was only sounding brass. It did not signal the arrival of any plan for effective action.
The council bypassed Mr. Boutros-Ghali's proposal that a peacekeeping force be positioned in Zaire to protect civilians and relief agencies if Burundi explodes. It did instruct him to report back by Feb. 20 with a plan for possible international interventions, but that vague directive was no more than a way of saying, "We'll take another look at this." One might easily suspect that the Security Council's leaders do not intend to do anything much about Burundi.
No doubt Ambassador Albright, who is serving as the Security Council's president this month, would object to that suspicion. In the "NewsHour" interview she pointed out, reasonably enough, that the United States cannot be the world's policeman. At the same time she insisted that the Clinton Administration wants to make sure that "horrific events like the genocide in Rwanda" are never repeated.
"But," she added, "we need to measure very carefully where we can make a difference." True. It is equally true, though, that we need to rethink our African policy so as to find better ways of making that difference both in the short term and the long.
For instance, Ambassador Albright several times remarked that in Angola and Liberia, just as in Bosnia, there had eventually arrived "a moment ripe for peace," a time when the international community could step in and help a ravaged nation's moderates put an end to civil war and start restoring normal life.
But Washington can do more than simply wait for one of those strategic moments. It can push that ripening process along, just as it did in the Middle East. When Israel and the Arab countries were bitterly polarized, the United States was on the sidelines, but far from inactive. Washington encouraged secret talks and public meetings: it continually sent emissaries to the region to cajole the hostile parties into sitting down together. For the African countries, however, there have been no efforts parallel to that strenuous U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East. Correcting that imbalance would be one way of making a difference right now.
IN THE LONG RUN, what is needed is a shift in the attitude underlying U.S. policy toward those sub-Saharan nations. Africa includes 30 percent of the world's poorest countries and has two-thirds of the world's refugees. The United States, however, along with the rest of the international community has been more concerned with setting up a free-market economy in the African countries than with the welfare of their ordinary people. The International Monetary Fund concentrates on the expansion of world production and trade, not on rescuing the dispossessed.
If the United States were to take the lead in designing programs that pay attention to the daily struggle of most families in a country like Burundi, there might well be less need for peacekeeping forces. At the very least, there would be confirmation of Ambassador Albright's words in that "NewsHour" exchange: "We care about the people of Africa...."