Who Will Prevent Ivory Coast From Becoming The Next Rwanda?

It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.
– Moliere, actor and playwright (1622-1673)

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, May/June 2003

French troops arrived in Ivory Coast only days after a failed September 19th coup attempt led by disgruntled ex-soldiers, and have remained there ever since. But with the implementation of a French-brokered political settlement stalled, the French presence on the ground has grown increasingly precarious. If French forces are chased out of the country, who will prevent Ivory Coast from becoming the next Rwanda?


Though rebel forces failed to dislodge President Laurent Gbagbo on September 19th, they did manage to seize the predominantly Muslim northern half of the country, which had long simmered with grievances against the Christian-dominated government in the south. More than a million people have been displaced by the ensuing pandemonium. Brutal reprisals by government supporters have been directed at many of the country’s 5 million immigrants — a full third of the population — as they are indiscriminately accused of siding wholesale with the insurgents. Those from neighboring Burkina Faso and Liberia have been the targets of particularly vicious attacks. Many Burkinabes have been severely beaten by official Ivorian authorities, seen their shantytown dwellings burnt to the ground, and heard increasing talk in the streets about the emerging concept of the “True Ivorian.” Ivorian state television called for expelling all Burkinabes from Ivory Coast, in tones eerily reminiscent of ethnic cleansing broadcasts in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. As many as 10,000 Liberians were driven from their homes in rural western regions by machete-wielding Ivorians, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the early days of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

The rebels, for their part, have engaged in widespread rapes and murders themselves. Amnesty International says they systematically massacred scores of government police officers — and their children — after capturing the nation’s second largest city of Bouake during the initial hostilities. “Drugged kids” in rebel-held territories, said UN envoy Carolyn McAskie in February, were busy “committing every kind of atrocity possible.” There are not one, but three competing insurgent forces, which not only accentuates the chaos, but raises the specter of a protracted civil war if the government falls.


The initial French deployment — with American assistance — was directed solely at evacuating Westerners. On September 29th, the two made a dramatic helicopter descent into rebel-held Korhogo to rescue about 400, including Peace Corps volunteers, nuns, and orphans clutching stuffed animals. But while the Americans departed within days, a full 3000 French peacekeepers have remained — in Paris’s largest African intervention since the 1980s.

France maintains commercial interests in sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest economy, responsibility for the 12,000 French nationals who still remain, and arguably a sense of noblesse oblige toward its own former colony. Their ostensible mission now is both to protect Westerners and to prop up the perpetually shaky truce that was signed in October. They have done little proactively to prevent the internecine killings and atrocities that have continued, though they have managed to prevent open warfare from breaking out.

But as the New Year approached the French position began to unravel. On December 27th insurgents ambushed a French patrol, without inflicting any casualties. On January 6th they tried again, and managed to wound nine French soldiers in a large clash that left 30 rebels dead. After French President Jacques Chirac brought the parties to Paris and forged a tentative peace accord on January 24th, anti-French rioting erupted in the capital.

Government supporters (who were likely incited behind the scenes by government agents) claimed Chirac had “forced” Gbagbo to give away too much — including rebel control of the defense and interior ministries. They attacked a French school, broke the windows of French homes, burned French vehicles, and called for the execution of Jacques Chirac. At the same time deadly street clashes between Christians and Muslims erupted throughout the country. Many French nationals fled. One French official said those who remained were “virtual hostages,” and another said Ivory Coast had become “another Vietnam.”

Gbagbo has yet to move to implement the peace accord, and rebel leaders warned they would attack the capital before they would renegotiate. “There will be no compromises,” said rebel leader Felix Doh. “We are ready to die.” By March French forces on the ground appeared to be the only thing standing between the rebels and the capital — and between order and anarchy.

The doomsday scenario is that someone will decide that it’s time to chase the French out of the country — either by successfully inflicting a couple of dozen casualties on French troops, or by successfully murdering a couple of dozen French citizens. It’s hard to imagine the French hanging on if such a scenario unfolds. Instead, the shedding of French blood on the ground would likely result in a rapid mass evacuation of all French nationals, and the same kind of hasty retreat that Washington carried out after 18 American soldiers were massacred and defiled in Somalia in 1993, or that Brussels ordered after 10 Belgian soldiers were tortured and murdered in Rwanda in 1994. Both decision makers in Paris and the French public would likely conclude that their country simply did not possess any vital interests sufficient to warrant further French deaths in a far distant land. If this happens, it is quite unlikely that any other outside power will intervene. The Ivorians — perhaps most especially the 5 million immigrants — will will likely be left to their fates.


But isn’t there a “transnational vital interest” in protecting the Ivorians left behind? Don’t we all possess a universal interest in living in a world free of crimes against humanity? That is the powerful concept behind the enduring proposal to create a standing all-volunteer United Nations Rapid Deployment Force (UNRDF). Such a UNRDF would possess a different raison d’etre from every national military force in the world. Its purpose would be not to defend the citizens or interests of any particular state, but the common human interest we all share in preventing genocide and atrocities anywhere in the world. And the soldiers serving in such a force would explicitly state their willingness not just to defend their own country, but to protect the innocent in any country. They would be volunteering to risk their lives not just to “serve their country,” but to serve humanity.

A UNRDF, as its name indicates, could deploy rapidly — avoiding typical delays of 3-6 months to get conventional UN peacekeeping missions up and running, assembled as they are from scratch each and every time (and usually only after a conflict has ceased). It could immediately create “safe areas” and secure humanitarian relief operations. It could arrest the perpetrators of crimes against humanity. And it could perhaps even prevent the outbreak of conflict itself with a swift preventive deployment to a situation where the outbreak of genocidal violence seems imminent.

But most importantly, the very existence of such a UNRDF could serve as a great deterrent, and diminish the possibility that conflagrations would erupt into violence in the first place. Today’s situation, on the other hand, is virtually one of negative deterrence. Local bullies act with impunity — because they know that outside powers don’t possess enough of a direct vital interest to send in their own forces to stop them. Canadian scholar Peter Langille complains that this has fostered a “culture of impunity, premised on the assumption that one can get away with mass murder … as long as the interests of the great powers are not challenged.”


During the cataclysm in Rwanda in 1994, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked 19 countries to contribute troops to a UN force to go in and stop the carnage. And 19 countries turned him down. President Clinton expressed the prevailing attitude at the time. “We cannot dispatch our troops to solve every problem where our values are offended by human misery,” he said. “But we are prepared to defend ourselves and our fundamental interests when they are threatened.” “I swear to you,” said the Secretary-General, “that we could have stopped the genocide in Rwanda with 400 paratroopers.”

But if a UNRDF were available, with highly dedicated and well-trained volunteers in place and ready to go, it would free the American president from precisely the kind of agonizing choice that President Clinton faced in 1994: to risk American military casualties over something remote from American interests, or to watch thousands of innocents be gruesomely slaughtered while we stand impotent on the sidelines.

That dilemma was vividly portrayed in the special two-part episode of the NBC-TV series The West Wing, which aired February 5th and 12th, 2003. President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, becomes increasingly agitated as he receives reports of genocidal violence in the fictional land of “Kundu.” He asks for a “force depletion report.” Pentagon analysts inform him that U.S. troops could quickly put a stop to the massacres, but that American forces would likely suffer about 150 casualties in doing so. Meanwhile the death toll in Kundu rises from 5000, to 10,000, to 25,000. “Why does an American life matter more to me than a Kundunese life?” he asks an aide. “I don’t know,” the aide replies, “but it does.”

One might posit alternative moral universes where saving several thousand Sudanese or Timorese or Congolese lives is considered worth the risk of several dozen American lives. But in our moral universe it is simply taken for granted that not a single drop of American blood can be shed unless there’s something sufficiently at stake for the United States. Yet surely there were individual Americans who would have volunteered to risk their lives to put a stop to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or genocide in Rwanda — and couldn’t have cared less whether America’s vital interests were somehow engaged. As Michael Kinsley asked while the Rwanda inferno was raging: “Why not … a permanent, volunteer expeditionary force explicitly committed to being available for service in humanitarian interventions where American national interest … is not necessarily paramount?” But no such force exists. For American citizens willing to put their lives on the line when America has no dog in the fight, there is literally no place to do so.


The UNRDF idea is hardly new. It was first proposed by the first UN Secretary-General, Trygvie Lie. It was developed in William Frye’s seminal 1957 book, A United Nations Peace Force. Governor Bill Clinton advanced the idea during his first presidential campaign in 1992, and former President Ronald Reagan endorsed it in a speech at Oxford University that same year — calling it “an army of conscience.” It was considerably elaborated by Sir Brian Urquhart’s landmark 1993 New York Review article, “For a UN Volunteer Military Force.” One of the central recommendations of The Commission on Global Governance, in its 1995 UN 50th anniversary report, was the creation of “a highly trained UN Volunteer Force that is willing, if necessary, to take combat risks to break the cycle of violence.” That’s precisely what the French, even while in the country, have largely been unwilling to do in Ivory Coast.

According to a 1999 poll, 64% of Americans support the development of a “truly international army that can be used in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and Rwanda.” Another poll reported that 53% favor “a standing U.N. peacekeeping force made up of individuals who were not part of a national army but had volunteered to be part of the U.N. force.”

And in the last Congress, Reps. James McGovern and Amo Houghton introduced House Resolution 938, the “UN Rapid Deployment Act.” It was cosponsored by over 50 members, including Barbara Lee, John Lewis, Henry Waxman, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi, Jesse Jackson Jr., Dennis Kucinich, Diane Watson, and Tom Lantos. The legislation was pushed stubbornly for years by NGOs like the World Federalist Association, the Campaign for UN Reform, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Refugees International, and the Council for a Livable World. It compares the present system to “a volunteer fire department that has to find fire engines and the funds to run them before starting to douse any flames.”


A number of practical questions need to be satisfactorily answered before any kind of UNRDF can come into being. How large should a UNRDF be? How would it be trained? Where would it be stationed? How would it recruit? Where will the money come from in an already chronically under funded United Nations?

Larger political questions emerge as well. Is the UN Security Council — where one single country can prevent the entire rest of the world from acting — the only possible body to hold UNRDF dispatch authority? What will be the criteria for a decision to intervene? Can we integrate the UNRDF with non-coercive inducements — offering carrots as well as sticks to encourage good behavior and discourage bad? Is there a need for two kinds of forces — military units ready to use the necessary force to bring mass organized violence to an end, and a civilian police corps to maintain law and order after hostilities have ceased? Can the latter be the key to prevent the former from going in and never getting out? What might happen if a UNRDF, engaged in combat, starts to lose? Would great power military forces have to go in to bail the UN force out?


But none of these questions are inherently unanswerable. And indeed, if we fail to answer them, we can expect to see the same wearying scenario unfold repeatedly in our nascent century. Conflict erupts in the wake of a coup, or an ethnic or religious civil war, or somebody in the presidential palace squeezed the toothpaste tube wrong, or whatever. Sophisticated Western forces zip in, evacuate their citizens, zip out … and leave the local denizens to their fates. Is this the only policy option we can ever hope to create?

During the NBA playoffs a few years ago, two commercials repeatedly aired back-to-back. The first was sponsored by Amnesty International, and featured celebrities dramatically reading passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The second was sponsored by the U.S. Army, and featured American soldiers swinging into action — with flashback images to various coaches and grade school teachers whom a new recruit could make proud. Both were moving and heroic in tone. And the two running sequentially, just possibly, might have led some viewers to conclude that they could put a stop to brutal human rights violations around the world by joining the U.S. Army.

But the U.S. Army does not exist to enforce the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The U.S. Army exists to protect the citizens and the interests of the United States. The prevention of crimes against humanity requires armed forces whose mission is to protect the interests of humanity. “Everyone is afraid,” said one terrified Ivorian woman as the prodigious American war machine whisked the Americans away to safety. “We’d like to be helped too.”


Posted in Ending Genocide