the lost american Seeing the Forest AND the Trees-- the Big and Small Pictures of Humanitarian Emergencies
by Lionel A. Rosenblatt President, Refugees International
by lionel rosenblatt

When Fred Cuny sized up a humanitarian emergency, he had only one question: what do people who have been buffeted by disaster, natural or man-made, need in order to survive and reclaim their dignity? Indeed anyone confronted with proliferating crises around the world today would do well to emulate this single-mindedness.

It was my privilege to work alongside Fred in Bosnia. George Soros had asked for advice on how to help alleviate the suffering there, and I brought Fred with me to Sarajevo to see how we could help the people of a city struggling heroically under relentless bombardment. It was Fred's conceptual breakthrough to focus on resurrecting Sarajevo's tattered utilities infrastructure (water, heat, and electricity). The Frontline documentary shows how Fred, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Rescue Committee worked together to reconnect Sarajevo's lifelines.

Though his background was in engineering, Fred Cuny was far more than a technician. He understood the political and social crosscurrents that feed modern conflict as well as (or better than) any government or UN official. Fred had an almost unique ability to see both the forest and the trees.

At one level, today's conflicts are difficult for outside powers to mitigate; they are waged by power-crazed warlords with little regard for civilians or outsiders and a ready supply of arms. At the same time, the international community often seems to be working with one hand tied behind its back. I would like to highlight three glaring gaps in the international response to recent crises, especially the prolonged crisis in Central Africa's Great Lakes region, one of the worst within memory.

An Ounce of Prevention: the Need for Early and Decisive Action

First, the world's relief and foreign policy bureaucracies are too slow, waiting until the suffering shown on CNN becomes too distressing to ignore. By then, of course, lives have been tragically and needlessly lost, and the financial cost of intervention has risen. The problem is not a lack of early warning -- the signs are usually all too clear -- but a willful avoidance. It often seems that officials would rather not know about an impending crisis, for with that awareness comes the responsibility to act.

The cycle of Hutu-Tutsi violence in the Great Lakes shows how repeated failures by the international community can pile tragedy upon tragedy. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda against Tutsis and moderate Hutus, for example, might have been prevented if the international community had the political will to deploy a peacekeeping force with a robust mandate to prevent slaughter. Later that same year, more than a million Rwandan refugees were allowed to come under the control of extremist militia after they fled to refugee camps in neighboring Zaire, now the Congo. And, finally, in late 1996 and early 1997, the major powers failed to rescue hundreds of thousands of refugees when they were isolated and trapped in the forests of Congo. This triple failure on the part of the international community points out the critical need for improving the leadership, coordination, and capability of international organizations to deal with massive human tragedies.

Most importantly, world leaders must muster the political will and sense of urgency to deal forcefully with crises at their inception. Peacekeeping resources need to be enhanced. For example, several countries and organizations have proposed the creation of an international rapid reaction force of several thousand well-trained, well-equipped military and police personnel ready and able to respond quickly and decisively to humanitarian emergencies to prevent loss of innocent human life.

Holding Leaders to Account for Human Rights Abuses

Ethnic communities victimized in a conflict often feel compelled to seek revenge -- thereby fueling a cycle of violence. Enforcing accountability for war crimes is key to averting such ethnic vigilantism. Notwithstanding the shortcomings of the world community, leaders who emerge from conflict or crisis should be held responsible for violating the human rights of the people they lead. The new government of Congo, for instance, represents a test of international resolve. The armed rebellion that swept Laurent Kabila into power was comprised of Rwandan army and Congolese Tutsi forces that wreaked revenge for the 1994 genocide on thousands of innocent Hutu refugees.

The Kabila Government's strategy for resisting a UN investigation of the atrocities against the refugees consists in substantial part in focusing on the earlier tragedy. The UN indeed compounded the horror of the 1994 genocide by the ineffectuality of its International War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha. But this failure is hardly an argument against prosecuting those responsible for the latest round of killings. If human rights standards mean anything to governments, they must hold off from establishing close and friendly relations with the new leadership of Congo (especially government-to-government aid) until these clouds of doubt are cleared up.

Post-Conflict Re-Building

Even after the shooting stops and refugees are returned home, countries such as Cambodia, Angola, Mozambique, and Rwanda still face a wide array of problems as they struggle to return to normalcy and prosperity. Once a semblance of peace is achieved, the international community often loses interest in these troubled regions. Resources are poured in -- going mostly for UN and other international staff -- for a dramatic initiative such as an election. But as a country slips off the world's political radar screen, there often isn't even enough follow-through or resources for essential, and inexpensive, projects to put people back on their feet, such as irrigation, or micro-credit, health, and education.

Other challenges of re-building include reconciliation of warring factions, reintegration into the economy of former refugees, demobilization of soldiers who have few skills other than war, and the removal of land mines. The last of these is a major impediment to economic development in many countries, especially those agrarian economies, like Cambodia, where mines render off-limits a significant portion of arable land. Nearly 100 governments are currently negotiating an international ban on anti-personnel mines, a key step to stem the spread of this weapon which kills or maims 26,000 people (mostly civilians) each year. It is also critical to speed up the pace of mine clearance to remove the tens of millions of mines already in the ground. Refugees International has a project to test promising new demining technologies.

In the humanitarian relief community, Fred Cuny stood out for his ability to glean quickly from local people the social and cultural context of an emergency, his impatience with any bureaucratic obstacles, and his driving passion for the alleviation of suffering. In short, in a world that is growing weary and impatient with crises in faraway lands, Fred is the perfect example of the qualities needed now more than ever to protect men, women, and children from the worst inhumanity of their fellow humans. Whenever a tough problem comes up, I often find myself asking what my friend Fred would do.

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