From Genocide to Regional War: The Breakdown of International Order in Central Africa

by Christian R. Manahl


The 1999 crisis in Kosovo has been interpreted as the end of an era of international relations ruled by the UN Charter and the Security Council, and the beginning of a new world order [1]. NATO’s air raids against Yugoslavia in order to halt ethnic cleansing and oppression of the Kosovars was indeed the first major military intervention in violation of national sovereignty, which was justified by the need for the protection of human rights [2]. One would wish that the Kosovo intervention does not remain an isolated case where a conflict between the two major pillars of modern international law–national sovereignty and human rights–is resolved in favour of the latter. The establishment of an International Criminal Court of Justice and the indictment of President Milosevic for crimes against humanity are encouraging initiatives pointing in this direction.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the industrialised countries on both sides of the North Atlantic will defend with similar determination the victims of dictatorship and ethnic hatred in other regions of the world. The relative indifference of the international community towards notorious human rights violations in various parts of the world (Algeria, Myanmar, Tibet, both Congos, Sudan, etc.) sheds some doubt about the willingness of the major global powers to defend the basic rights of life, freedom and human dignity wherever they are threatened. Admittedly, human rights are not and cannot be the only factor to be taken under consideration in case of a foreign military intervention. Nonetheless, “feasibility” and “tradeoffs” are ambiguous arguments when it comes to basic principles. To defend human rights manu militari only where it can be done with little casualties, or where it is economically not too damaging, is not only morally questionable, it also has a profoundly negative impact on the nature of international relations. Intervening where it is convenient, but not wherever it is necessary and possible, opens the way for an erosion of state sovereignty which will not be balanced by a corresponding revalorisation of human rights.

This erosion did not start in the Balkans, where previous military action in Bosnia was taken in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions, but in Somalia after the withdrawal of a tragically unsuccessful UN peacekeeping mission. A serious acceleration of this process has recently occurred in Central Africa, where it has been accompanied by a dramatic erosion of human rights that seriously puts at stake the credibility of the international community to impose the respect of a new international order based on universal human rights principles.

The series of conflicts from the Great Lakes region to Angola, which has uprooted several million people, is gradually destroying the achievements of more than three decades of development efforts; entire populations are sinking back into misery, inter-ethnic violence, illiteracy, and a daily struggle for survival. But while this political and humanitarian disaster has gone largely unnoticed by the international media, it is worthwhile to consider the unravelling of the Central African crisis from the Rwandan genocide to the regional war in the Congo basin in the light of basic principles of international law. It will have a severely destabilising effect on the geopolitical structure of Africa, and probably on the structure of international relations in general.

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