Ten minutes from the Rwanda-Burundi border, and a short distance outside the camp for internally displaced persons to which they are escorting a water tanker, a platoon of Rwandan troops is waved down by men thinly disguised as civilians.
The platoon members, all in bulletproof vests despite the punishing heat, quickly pile out of their transports and deploy for all-round defence, wary of ambush even as their commander walks out of their protective perimeter to hear what the pedestrians have to say.
With much gesticulation the men quickly explain that their village had just been raided by a militant group, which had made off with prisoners.
The humanitarian mission is put on hold as the commander issues new orders. One section of the platoon approaches the presumed location of the militants from the front; another section flanks the enemy group. With little warning and nothing by the way of negotiation, the soldiers open fire with short bursts of automatic fire, punctuated by the deeper booms of light machine guns.
When the firing stops there are no prisoners, just a single supposed civilian who is quickly rolled on to a stretcher and hustled into the back of a field ambulance. Then the convoy rolls on, to continue its primary task of getting water to the tent city down the road.
In this instance there were no real bullets, only blanks, and no real civilians, only Rwandan soldiers with tunics over their uniforms to denote their roles, and the incident played out on the Rwandan side of the border, not in troubled neighbouring Burundi. But for all the conceit of the exercise, put on for the benefit of foreign journalists last week, it captured the underlying politics well: Rwanda wants to give military missions in other countries under banners such as the United Nations and African Union real teeth, making legitimate military targets out of any and all groups that threaten the lives of civilians. And if that means troops from participating states, including South Africa, becoming involved in more regular firefights and suffering more casualties, so be it.
In this argument Rwanda occupies the moral high ground. The county’s diplomatic relations have been strained to breaking point by the odd habit that people considered enemies by President Paul Kagame have developed of getting themselves assassinated. The Kagame government’s thin but often repeated denials have not stopped South Africa from expelling Rwandan diplomats, nor have they stopped a South African court from finding a political motive behind the attempted murder of Kayumba Nyamwasa, a former Rwandan army chief of staff in exile in South Africa.
On the protection of civilians in conflict situations, however, Rwanda speaks with authority. On the 40-minute drive from the capital of Kigali to RMA Gako, the military academy where the Rwandan platoon played out the exercise last week, one has to cross the Nyabarongo River. In 1994 the bodies of the victims of Rwanda’s genocide so filled that river that Ugandans still tell stories of what looked like a sea of logs floating in Lake Victoria far to the east. In Rwanda any discussion of the protection of civilians invariably starts with long apologies for the UN peacekeepers who passively observed that slaughter.
The shame of that inaction eventually saw UN peacekeeping missions in particular given “protection of civilian” mandates, or POC in the shorthand of diplomats. But even as Burundi’s political crisis makes it the new hot spot for conflict on the continent, a wide range of players is dissatisfied with the strength and execution of POC mandates, with Rwanda leading the chorus.
The purpose of peace operations, Kagame told the International Conference on the Protection of Civilians in Kigali last week, “is not the protection of peace agreements or UN mandates, even peacekeepers for that matter, much less the protection of politicians. The mission is to protect the ordinary people most at risk.”
Building peace, Kagame declared, means creating an environment in which warring parties can talk for as long as it takes to reach accord, but the world is failing in various intervention missions. “Deployment is too slow, while vague mandates and unclear rules of engagement inhibit decisive action to protect civilians.”
Requests for lethal operational resources
Although that is about as strongly as any of their political superiors will put it, the military conference attendees responsible for the training and command of peacekeeping troops from more than a score of countries in Africa and further afield will, privately, put it much more bluntly. They want a licence to engage those who threaten civilians within their theatres of operation – not as police, but as soldiers. That means dominating the field of battle and killing those who seek to oppose them. Some refer to it as “pacification”; others, jokingly, call it “achieving peace through proactive expenditure of ammunition”. It translates into the same requests for lethal operational resources: attack helicopters, sniper teams and even artillery.
“The criminals, the armed groups, need to be shown that, if they do something, they will suffer the consequences,” said Lieutenant General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, the Brazilian who was at one time the most senior United Nations commander in a stabilisation mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The language they understand is not English; it is not French – it is force and money, unfortunately.”
The military men’s hawkish attitude is not born solely of frustration at their inability to protect civilians, although each has a horror story to tell of women raped or children murdered as a result of insufficient intervention by international forces.
They also believe their forces are at greater risk of serious harm if they are not taken seriously, both because paramilitary groups will more readily attack peacekeepers – as is happening in Mali – and because local residents will not share desperately needed intelligence with multinational forces they do not see as competent.
“If they see you are a coward, the people lose trust in you,” said Major David Mutayomba, the chief instructor at RMA Gako, where Rwandan troops are trained prior to peacekeeping deployment. From posture flows ability to negotiate conditions. And, said Brazil’s Cruz of his experience in the DRC, the posture of UN troops in conflict zones is interpreted as one of “feeding cake to children”.
There is also a legal theory that both demands and allows for the use of force. The increasing use of satellite imagery and surveillance from drone aircraft has changed things in peacekeeping operations, Mona Khalil, a senior legal officer in the UN’s legal counsel office, told the conference. Failing to act to protect could, in the past, be legally excused by claiming ignorance of the need to act in the first place – but more information creates a legal liability for failing to act. A force, even one under a UN flag, could face serious trouble if civilians died after high-definition images of militants preparing for a slaughter had been streamed in real time to a command post.
As for the old legal doctrine of staying out of the fight, that has long gone out the window in many theatres of peacekeeping. “Let’s not have illusions,” Khalil told the conference. “We can become a party to the conflict by virtue of self-defence.”
History and international courts may later find that a peacekeeping force had played too active a role in this country or that, and had brought advantage to one side or the other in a conflict. Protecting civilians through force may increase that likelihood, but so does working with the forces of the host government or even providing humanitarian aid to a specific geographical area.
There is even a doctrine of international politics available to bolster the military and legal arguments for heavy-handed intervention in conflict, and to neutralise the argument that such intervention can usurp the autonomy of states and peoples.
Collective action of the UN or AU sort, Kagame said, is “entirely compatible with national sovereignty. Sovereignty, after all, is fundamentally about responsibility for the security and wellbeing of citizens.” Should any nation fail to ensure the safety of its citizens, the stepping-in of the international community – with tanks and guns as a last resort – can be seen as protecting sovereignty rather than an invasion.
Yet even with these pieces in place, and much hand-wringing about the need to make the protection of civilians the true focus of any international intervention in conflict, the problems persist. The countries supplying troops to peacekeeping forces either do so with outright caveats – such as that they should not be placed in the front line of conflict – or with “hidden caveats” to the same effect, military commanders say.
Troops are deployed without weapons fit to be fired, UN overseers claim. There is not nearly enough logistical support for forces in the field and never, ever enough air support and airlift capability.
“You can say to me: ‘Go protect the civilians,’ but I’m in a place where there are no roads, and we can either sit in our camps or go out by helicopter,” said a commander of a recent peacekeeping mission. “The politicians say: ‘Protect the civilians,’ but they give us no helicopters. Why do they give us no helicopters? Because then they … know we have to sit in our camps where they think their soldiers are safe, and don’t have to explain why their soldiers got killed, and lose elections.”
Unless that changes and countries such as South Africa genuinely commit to putting their soldiers in harm’s way if need be, many at the conference agreed, the international community will have more blood on its collective hands, and soon.
“It is already a month that people have been harassed and [subjected to] violence and killed, and nothing seems to be thought about as an intervention,” Marie-Louise Baricako told the conference in a rare mention of Burundi, despite the conference taking place a short journey from the border of that country, and even as Burundian refugees flooded into Rwanda. Baricako is a member of a high-level UN panel that is due shortly to deliver another report on the state of UN peace operations – and also a Burundian.
Political missions have been sent to Burundi, she said, “but what is needed is to stop killing people … How many people have to die before the international community understands it is time to act? Do we have to have thousands? I am pleading for the Burundian population, those helpless, those women in the market. I believe it is time to act. Protection of civilians: we cannot talk about protection of civilian principles and agree when people are dying and nobody is doing anything.”
A hush fell over the room, with military commanders nodding their agreement while diplomats, who have to report back to their national governments, glanced nervously at one another.
Phillip de Wet attended the International Conference on the Protection of Civilians as a guest of the government of Rwanda