Refugees Magazine Issue 110 (Crisis in the Great Lakes) - Opinion: Everyone is found wanting

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1997

In Central Africa the principal requirements of refugee law and practice were among the first casualties of the crisis....

By Dennis McNamara

The Great Lakes crisis tested the international community and its willingness or ability to protect refugees in a way seldom seen in recent decades.

Governments, international institutions and NGOs were all found wanting.

The exodus of so many people to Zaire and Tanzania, largely under the control of the killers and sponsors of Rwanda's genoicde, was virtually unique in UNHCR's history. The only comparable crisis, though on a smaller and less organized scale, was the flight of mass murderers and their followers and captives from Cambodia to Thailand in the late 1970s.

In Central Africa, the principal requirements of refugee law and practice were among the first casualties of the crisis and they were flouted and violated from the outset.

Not all populations left Rwanda freely. Their former leaders retained control in newly established refugee camps and civilians wanting to return home were intimidated and, on occasion, killed. Remnants of the Rwandan army and the militias, the Interahamwe, exerted their own odious control over populations of mainly women, children and the elderly.

The location of camps containing hundreds of thousands of Hutus associated with a bloody genocide a few weeks earlier, virtually on the border of the country their leaders had destroyed, was a formula for inevitable conflict.

The OAU Refugee Convention and a 1985 statement of UNHCR's own Executive Committee of governments, specifically provides that asylum states will ensure that camps are located away from sensitive borders and are strictly civilian and humanitarian in nature. In Central Africa the failure of Zaire, and to a lesser extent Tanzania, to implement treaty obligations, set the stage for future violations.

When the camps were not moved, the chance to separate civilian refugees from fighters and génocidaires was lost. UNHCR works with states to ensure that those guilty of crimes against humanity or acts contrary to the principles of the UN and OAU are not treated as refugees but the international obligation remains firstly a state one.

Accusing UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies of this failure is an intentional misrepresentation of treaty obligations. It is similarly unrealistic to suggest that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda can do more than prosecute a few of the main perpetrators of genocide. It cannot deal with the whole problem.

The consequences of these earlier failures continue to hamstring the resolution of the refugee problem today. An estimated 1.5 million Rwandans and Burundis have returned home in the last two years, some willingly, but most in the absence of realistic or viable alternatives.

Tens of thousands of people have been arbitrarily arrested as suspected génocidaires in Rwanda with no due process to support the suspicions. In Burundi, some returnes have been rounded up and placed in regroupement sites.

Others continue to resist return, both in Democratic Congo and other states. Attempts to screen them have had mixed results; some recognized refugees have been forcibly expelled and a number of states including Rwanda, Democratic Congo and Tanzania have thrown out some asylum seekers before they were even screened; in other cases, suspected génocidaires have successfully avoided return.

It is ironic that the same critics of the earlier failure to separate the génocidaires, attacked the screening process as unnecessary and ultimately contributed to making it unworkable.

Drawing protection lessons from the Great Lakes is a difficult but necessary ongoing process. Some are already relatively clear. It has become obvious for UNHCR that even with the immediate life-saving imperatives of such a dramatic exodus, basic protection concerns must also be equally and fully addressed from the start, and they must be sustained on a consistent basis through the life of the crisis.

They include: an early review of the refugees' profile; the separating out of fighters and killers; the location of camps away from sensitive borders. The support of key regional and international governments is paramount.

Any exodus of Great Lakes proportions raises political and security concerns for involved governments. Legitimate as they may be, they must not be allowed to override basic treaty and moral obligations. Striking the proper balance between real security concerns and humanitarian obligations is an unanswered challenge of the Central Africa experience.

Dennis McNamara is UNHCR's Director of International Protection

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 110 (1997)