The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance

Title: UNHCR’s Relief, Rehabilitation and Repatriation of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire (1994-1997)
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Document Posted: 8 April 2002

UNHCR’s Relief, Rehabilitation and Repatriation of Rwandan Refugees in Zaire (1994-1997)

Sreeram S. Chaulia*

"The whole of eastern Zaire was an impossible mission. There were many mistakes, but I still don’t know what we should have done differently, as humanitarians or human beings”

Kilian Kleinschmidt, UNHCR Official [1]


The Great Lakes refugee crisis of the mid-nineties was one of the toughest and most discussed operations in the history of the world’s premier refugee agency, UNHCR. The complexity, controversy and sheer dimensions of the problem thrown up in this crisis challenged and brought into question many established forms of management and response mechanisms of UNHCR and left a permanent impression on all its subsequent projects, particularly in southern Africa. This essay intends to critically investigate UNHCR operations in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), starting with the influx of nearly one million refugees after the Rwandan genocide until their repatriation in 1997, from the points of view of performance-based management and programme evaluation. There will be an attempt to pinpoint the salient internal organisational drawbacks of UNHCR while keeping in mind the extreme difficulties presented by the explosive external environment that provided the backdrop to its functioning in Zaire. Finally, a set of management improvements drawn from the foregoing assessment and evaluation procedures will be suggested and recommendations made for improving the organisational efficiency and credibility of UNHCR.

Goals and Objectives

Since well-managed intergovernmental organisations possess a ‘strategic vision’ of clearly defined goals and objectives and are able to specify outcomes that they expect to induce out of a particular programme, the starting point would be to examine UNHCR’s general vision and raison d’ etre. Formed as an ad hoc subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly in 1951 to tackle the post-World War II refugee crisis in Europe, UNHCR became, over time, a permanent and highly prominent Office within the UN system, [2] setting itself the following broad tasks:  

·        Providing protection for refugees ('primary function') through promotion of international legal instruments (1951 Convention relating to Status of Refugees, 1967 Refugees Protocol and Declaration on Territorial Asylum) and ensuring that refugees are treated in conformity with their rights as established in these instruments.

·        Promoting international actions aimed at permanent solutions to the problem of refugees, viz. (a) voluntary repatriation, (b) emigration to a third country and (c) integration in the country of residence. More recently, the search for durable solutions has entailed UNHCR encouraging peaceful conflict resolution with the aim of "reducing situations of forced displacement" and preventing "recurrent refugee producing situations". 

·        Formulating material assistance programmes ('financing of relief function') to meet immediate needs of shelter, food, water and medicine during emergencies and coordinating and leading (not directly conducting) affected governments, UN agencies, regional organisations and NGOs in their efforts of refugee resettlement, rehabilitation and repatriation.

·        Generic objective of promoting the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, especially reinforcing respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and in the context of refugees, promoting wider knowledge and understanding of recognised international principles for their treatment. [3]

Progress-Tracking of Objectives in Zaire Crisis

The primary function of ensuring the protection of refugees did not seem imposing at the outset because Mobutu’s host government was willing to admit, or in greater likelihood, unable to prevent the unprecedented flood of Rwandese Hutu from entering the bordering Goma region in July-August 1994. Comparative UNHCR experiences in other conflict zones of the world usually encountered severe hurdles in getting the host to accept the influx and to honour their rights. Zaire, thanks to its history of cooperation with the Hutus in Rwanda and dwindling central authority in regions far-flung from the capital, did not and could not object per se.      

But the distinctive circumstances of post-genocide southern Africa threw up a new factor for which UNHCR was unprepared- criminalisation of the camps by interahamwe milita or former genocidaires, who had allegedly incited the outflow in the first place by provoking fears among Hutus of reverse ethnic cleansing by the Tutsi-led RPF government in Kigali. While some observers, including the UNHCR, had reasons to believe that the new Rwandese government was ignoring revenge killings and human rights abuses and that Hutus decided to emigrate to Zaire and Tanzania out of ‘genuine fear’, others alleged that the exodus was entirely ‘organised’ by interahamwe and the erstwhile Rwandese army (FAR) for political ends and that there was nothing to fear from the new regime. [4] In either case, the domination and terrorising of genuine refugees by heavily armed thugs in the Zaire camps became a deadly reality for UNHCR to square up to. Acting like a virtual government in exile, the militias trafficked in arms, diverted international aid to the black market for buying weapons and conscripted refugees to mount increasingly fierce attacks across the border into Rwanda. Here were nearly 100,000 mass murderers from whom it was foolhardy to expect any respect for international refugee protection instruments or UN conventions.        

With specific aims of ensuring camp safety and eradicating forces bent on preventing refugees from returning to Rwanda and appropriating aid from those who most needed it, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata appealed to the UN Secretary General, maintaining that “no international humanitarian organisation or NGO can solve political conflicts…We need political will”. Boutros Ghali informed the Security Council that an intervention force of up to 12,000 men (or at least 3-5,000 just to establish minimal security without separation of militias from refugees) would be needed. No member state responded and after considering subcontracting a private mercenary security service, UNHCR finally settled on a feeble police contingent provided by Mobutu’s decrepit government that ironically compounded the problem by siding with the criminals. The external environment critically limited UNHCR’s choice of hiring a robust force that could perform the dangerous act of separation. While policing of aid convoys was successfully achieved in former Yugoslavia through UNPROFOR, the lack of political will in New York was a glaring loophole in the Zaire operations.  

Ø      The material assistance objective suffered initially from the size of the crisis at hand, the scope of which was so gargantuan and unexpected that UNHCR found itself under-equipped. According to the Organisation of African Unity, UNHCR and NGOs were caught “completely off-guard” in the early months, their contingency planning being based on an influx of not more that 50,000 people, by the world record proportions of the population movements. [5] Their estimate of 50,000 was probably based on previous examples of population movements in the region and the poor coverage given to a unique and ghastly event in modern African history, genocide. UNHCR was operating for the first time in a post-genocide ambience. The mass of humanity that had rolled into Zaire lacked food, medicines, shelter, drinking water, hygiene and sanitation, and was soon engulfed in an enormous cholera epidemic, which UNHCR was unable to stem in the inaugural two months of July and August.                                  

 Estimated size and geographical distribution of the Hutu refugees in the Great Lakes Region (1995)

Burundi                        270,000

Tanzania                       577,000

Uganda                          10,000

Zaire (Goma)                   850,000

Zaire (Bukavu)                 333,000

Zaire (Uvira)                   62,000

    Total                          2,102,000 [6]

After the first week, there were 600 deaths a day and after two weeks, 3000 deaths a day. Altogether, the number of deaths in the Goma camps amounted to 50,000 or more by the time the ‘CNN Factor’ brought in massive amounts of foreign aid in response to moving TV images and the High Commissioner’s appeal for contributions, Bill Clinton describing the camps as “the worst humanitarian crisis in a generation.” From a paucity of funds and equipment in mid-July, UNHCR went on to enjoy almost $ 1 million a day for spending on relief efforts until December 1994 and the result was an immediate improvement in delivery of the material assistance objective. But as Shahryar Khan, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative in Rwanda, wrote, the price paid in the intermediate period was nothing short of a “revision of hell” and a “surrealist painting of doom” after a horrendous genocide. [7]        

If the financial position improved, UNHCR’s executing arms on the field, NGOs, dealt a fatal blow to the corollary co-ordination function in late 1994. Citing the widespread diversion of funds towards “feeding the killers” and the continuing lack of security, many of the voluntary agencies whose operational activities were being overseen by UNHCR decided to leave rather than compound the cycle of violence. This decamping of NGOs on grounds of conscience started with the ever-reliable contractor, Medicins Sans Frontieres, complaining that “this humanitarian operation was a total ethical disaster” because it was abetting impunity rather than helping to punish it. War criminals responsible for atrocities on humanity are clearly not entitled to refugee status according to the 1951 Convention and MSF also made a legal dig by pointing this out. International Rescue Committee, a long-time supporter of UNHCR field missions left saying, “humanitarianism has become a resource and people are manipulating it as never before. Sometimes we just shouldn’t show up for a disaster.” [8] Oxfam, Save the Children and Care also withdrew, completing the circle of UNHCR’s most trusted lieutenants about whom the Office had recently written, “without them, UNHCR would be totally impotent.” [9] Thanks to UNHCR’s long-term liaisoning with the Geneva-based International Council for Voluntary Agencies (ICVA), replacements to perform the vital tasks of material relief were arranged for, but the absence of top NGOs, with whom UNHCR had concluded a ‘Partnership in Action’ (PARinAC) agreement in 1993, made a qualitative difference in the ensuing period. The seriousness of the NGO abandonment process can be best gauged by the fact that it drove UNHCR itself to oftentimes consider closing shop, agonising moments that were tided over by Ogata’s reasoning, “so long as there were people who had crossed an international border in an asylum situation, I don’t have the freedom to leave them, however complicated the group was.” 

Financing of relief proved a roller coaster of sorts, with very meagre sums in July 1994, extremely generous amounts between August and December 1994, and a drying up of donations once the cholera epidemic subsided and the arc lights of world media slipped away by mid-1995. Funding of the Office comes from both public and private sources, the former comprising limited subsidies from the regular UN budget to meet administrative costs and voluntary contributions made by member states to meet refugee needs, and the latter representing donations from NGOs and private individuals received after appeals made by the High Commissioner. Reliance on annual fund-raising and the absence of a more stable revolving fund to meet emergencies like in Zaire proved costly, because the heart-catching headlines of 1994 soon became ‘stale’ once the dying stopped and Rwandese in Zaire entered into “The Forgotten Years” as far as the world was concerned. Repeated inter-agency appeals of the UN for urgent supplies and military assistance to refugees went largely unheeded. Aid workers “increasingly felt alone and abandoned by the international community” and the shortage of funds drove UNHCR to “urgent and eventually desperate efforts” to repatriate the refugees to Rwanda. [10]       

Ø    The Permanent Solutions and human rights objectives, unlike the rest on UNHCR’s agenda, are loose and open-ended ones with long time horizons, often prefixed with vague phrases like “to promote”, “to facilitate” and “to develop”. In Zaire, funding dilemmas, scanty international interest and Mobutu’s failed host state left little alternative with UNHCR but to pursue the only feasible solution of encouraging voluntary repatriation by introducing a package of confidence-building-measures within Rwanda (rule of law, government reassurances of equal treatment for returnees and rehabilitation of the shattered post-genocide economy). Even this ‘solution’ suffered due to the RPF government’s perceptions that UNHCR was aiding and feeding opponents of Kigali and that some refugees it was proposing to send back might be spies of the former Rwandan government scouting out the situation in Rwanda and relaying information back to their leaders in the camps. Kigali was also resentful of the fact that UNHCR was unable to situate the camps at a fair distance from the international border in deference to humanitarian law and various standard refugee procedures. [11] Interahamwe had their own vested interest in detaining people from returning and due to their grip over camp politics, could intimidate refugees not to follow UNHCR prescribed solutions. Refugees who wanted to return home were quasi-hostages. Persistent rumours of RPF exactions and a ‘second genocide’ also pegged back repatriation efforts. Ultimately, it was the anti-Mobutu RPF-aided ADFL rebels who liberated and repatriated most of the refugees to Rwanda in 1997. Although claims of a second genocide against the refugees were exaggerated, UNHCR did manage to save around 185,000 refugees who had gone ‘missing’ during the rebel march into Zaire and airlifted 62,000 of them back to Rwanda. [12]   

Non-cooperation of the country of origin and camp leaders in creating conditions for repatriation was part of the larger political morass in the Great Lakes that no amount of conflict resolution seemed able to resolve. Repatriation was seen by many as an attempt at brokering a negotiated settlement for a new “broad-based government” between the RPF government and brutal criminals and thus legitimizing ‘rescapes’, who should instead be apprehended by the war crimes tribunal in Tanzania. In other words, UNHCR had lost the moral right to seek repatriation after failing to separate militias from genuine refugees. Withholding of development aid by France and the World Bank to Rwanda until refugees were repatriated was seen by many critics of western actions in the region as a continuation of the same policies that led to a “preventable genocide” in 1994. [13] The Office, as a lead organization in the area, also pushed for an ‘expanded political solution’ to conflict by trying to involve other regional players- Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and South Africa- along with Mobutu's dying regime, Zairian rebels and later Laurent Kabila's government, in the search for an 'African solution' to never-ending civil war that was the root cause of forced human displacement. Further, in pursuit of “preventive and solution-oriented activities”, UNHCR attempted institution building and training activities in human rights in the camps, although nothing durable was practically achieved. [14] Mandates for human rights observers in Zaire and Rwanda were consistently voted through UN resolutions, but never kicked off in the militarised environment. In toto, the aims of promoting durable solutions and human rights did not succeed beyond token value.     

Mangement Recommendations

Dubbed as “the messiest humanitarian quagmire ever” UNHCR's management of the Rwandan refugee crisis in Zaire engendered more questions and criticism than answers and solutions in our programme evaluation. The gap between what UNHCR intended to do and what was actually done in Zaire-Rwanda was enormous and the following recommendations are meant to suggest not only how the crisis could have been better handled but also to serve as useful tools for plugging the gaps in future operations of such complexity:

·        The foremost recommendation of the ‘Lessons Learned’ and internal stocktaking process of UNHCR has been strengthening the protection aspect “by ensuring high level decision-making on protection policy at the outset of emergencies.” [15] There is a need to improve both in-house (Protection Operations Support Section) and inter-agency measures to improve camp security at an early stage of the refugee crisis. The US government’s proposal in 1996 to organise and train a rapidly deployable Africa Crisis Response Force should be extended to encompass policing of humanitarian and refugee relief functions, besides the traditional peacekeeping purpose. It might also be useful if the High Commissioner is given the liberty to hire private protection forces in the event of an urgent exigency (like in the present Guinea-Liberia camp security crisis) without the encumbering red tape of getting permissions from New York. Executive Outcomes, a South African mercenary army, had enabled establishment of some basic law and order in Sierra Leone and laid the foundation for UN-monitored elections in 1996. The cue should be taken on to refugee relief operations as well. Having said that, UNHCR will have to choose carefully from a plethora of armed groups roaming the African continent so as not to lose control over a contracted protection force that might run amok and add to the violence problem. The most important and desirable change would be for international will, expressed in the UN Security Council, to respond to protection dilemmas, a factor that was found sorely wanting in Zaire. Just as Lakhdar Brahimi’s report on UN Peacekeeping nails down ‘political will’ as the essential requisite for successful operations, Ogata has identified the need for political will as essential for UNHCR to ride over camp insecurity, a problematic feature which has started becoming ubiquitous in most African refugee crises since Zaire. However much internal management is alerted to the protection task, unless the external environment is made more conducive, there is little progress possible. Selectivity in international response to refugee crises (eg. enthusiastically volunteering for UNPROFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina and synchronously abandoning a similar need in Zaire) [16] and the habit of passing the buck of safety to an essentially humanitarian organisation like UNHCR where Big Power interests were not involved will never solve this central problem which wrecked the Zaire operations. 

·        All necessary reforms should be implemented for effective joint action between the lead coordinating agency, UNHCR, and implementing intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations. Logistics and telecommunications difficulties, particularly high in Zaire, should be charted out coherently with all the responsible NGOs so that preparedness and response are adequate. Failure to establish proper communication and co-ordination among UNHCR, UNICEF and WFP, who normally enjoy an effective working relationship, led to numerous critical blockages of the food pipelines during the cholera epidemic. UNHCR has also recognised the “urgent need to establish a framework for regular in-house consultation between the various players” for responding better to situations like the pullout of NGOs which depleted the material assistance function greatly. [17] In this context, it is worth noting that no similar decampment of NGOs happened in the Tanzanian camps and as the OAU report notes, “the cooperation between UNHCR and the NGOs in this emergency situation was almost perfect”, thanks to long-standing links between UNHCR and organisations like the Tanzania Christian Refugee Service, which had been working together since the 1960s. The reasons why the “Tanzanian situation was a model compared to the fiasco in Zaire” were manifold and historical, but UNHCR could do better by replicating elsewhere the solid Tanzanian style IO-NGO partnership model it has nurtured to near perfection. Refugee problems are by nature emergencies and hence programmes roll over from crisis year to next crisis year, rendering it very difficult for UNHCR to enjoy the benefits of long-standing ties with its ‘right arms’. At the same time, typical African refugee situations are protracted and therefore, planning must be anticipative. Together with the World Food Programme, UNHCR needs to override the ‘exigency syndrome’ (seeking and swapping implementing organisations after the crisis begins) and map longer-term strategic visions with NGOs, especially local ones, to be able to respond collectively in future Zaire-like scenarios. 

·        Absence of a stable revolving fund and multi-year planning and budgeting for UNHCR financing have already been identified as bottlenecks that impaired quick and efficient responses in Zaire, and this issue commands even more attention now as UNHCR is reportedly in acute worldwide financial crisis, unable to perform its most basic assistance programmes, especially in Africa. This year, UNHCR announced that it would be forced to borrow US$40 million from its working capital in order to finance its programs until the end of the year. Particularly distressing on the donations front is a cut in European Union funding, part of a larger diminishment in receptivity to refugees in the western world. While funding blues are justifiably a big problem that condition UNHCR actions, it is imperative that the Office re-examine its own internal structural drawbacks (lack of transparency, accountability etc.) instead of harping solely on the precarious external environment that hampers its performance. The publication of damning revelations of financial and personnel irregularities by the Financial Times as well as accusations of inscrutability of spending ledgers to independent external review have highlighted like never before the trappings of bureaucracy in the Office that could be putting off donors (who in turn are coming under increasing internal pressure to justify their external spending) According to FT, “the organisation has between 25 and 30 per cent in ‘hidden’ administrative costs spent on and by workers in the field, with between 50 and 60 per cent of its $1bn budget actually being spent on refugees, compared with the 80 per cent it officially claims” and UNHCR’s financial statements “do not truly reflect the expenditure during the year because “as much as $193.5m of expenditure in 1997 was recorded in a ‘suspense’ or provisional account and not fully justified.” Furthermore, “current staff includes several ‘floaters’ - officials on full pay but not working as they await a fresh posting which may take months to be assigned.” [18] Although the Office issued detailed rebuttals of these charges, the mud has stuck and many western donors are using the exposes to question the value of their investments. UNHCR should thoroughly implement the accounting reforms prescribed by the UNGA appointed international board of auditors to present itself better chances of adequate and timely funding and avoid pecuniary catastrophes like Zaire. Statements by US representatives to the UN in 1999 expressing, “we continue to be concerned by the many indications of noncompliance (with reform proposals) and related problems with implementing partners” are worrisome factors for an Office already in knee-deep financial morass.      

·        Although the concept of bringing UNHCR into a Project Management (PMS) mould with modern managerial structures and working tools was first mooted by Poul Hartling in the early eighties, it is yet to get institutionalized and was found sorely wanting in the Great Lakes case. Projects reviewed in Geneva and in the field often lack work plans or milestones for evaluating progress of implementation. Performance indicators are being currently stressed in the new Operations Management System  (OMS) of the Office, particularly with the aim of “emphasising results/outcomes rather than outputs and process.” [19] For example, as long as certain products or services like food, medicines, income-generation assistance and human rights advocacy were being supplied as outputs in Zaire, there did not seem much concern about the outcomes (relief of diseased, resettlement, repatriation, changes in asylum law of hosts, changes in attitude of local population to refugees etc.) that were being induced in the target population of refugees. It is with this tendency in mind that numerous critics have attacked humanitarianism as a commercial enterprise and marketplace that does not go beyond distribution of products. [20] Accepted UNHCR is more a coordinating office rather than a direct implementer of projects, but as a leader and manager of numerous constituent IOs and NGOs, it should be taking the initiative for more result-oriented planning. Consultants have recommended creation of additional professional and support posts in UNHCR’s Central Evaluation Unit, appointment of Evaluation Coordination Officers in the field (Bureaus) and raising the allocation to central evaluation budget in the total agency budget for fulfilling these reforms, but these require a sizeable increase in the UN’s budgetary outlay that meets the Office’ administrative costs. Installation of a comprehensive information retrieval, dissemination and feedback system has also been mooted, yet another addition predicated upon funding for overheads from New York. Since such expectations go against the trends of downsizing and trimming in the entire UN system and Kofi Annan’s plans to introduce “greater agility and lightness in responding to an increasingly dynamic and complex world” [21] , the Office will therefore have to look into additional resources with the concurrence and assistance of the member countries, particularly the US and EU who wish to see major improvements in UNHCR management. It will be an achievement if the High Commissioner convinces the Doubting Thomases in the developed world to shell out some resources for these much-needed alterations in return for concrete guarantees that efficiency would improve in future projects as a consequence of the management accretions.       

·     One recommendation that has never been broached in consultancy literature is for UNHCR to make greater use of the UN’s publicity organs, specifically the Department of Public Information, to counter in our case, persistent Congolese and Rwandan government allegations that UNHCR was getting “involved in political games” and that it was playing a partisan role. [22] The Office would probably have been better off in terms of credibility and moral stature if it had publicised its dilemmas with regard to the interahamwe-dominated camps, failure to disarm the militias and to relocate camps away from the Kivu border, rather than remaining reticent and becoming a victim of slander and calumny. The extremely complicated politicised and militarised nature of the Great Lakes refugee crisis demanded the premier humanitarian organisation to be on the right side of perceptions not only for its worldwide reputation but to enjoy the confidence of the local populations in the region which might keep requiring UNHCR operations for years. To quote Filippo Grandi (presently chief of UNHCR’s uphill mission in Afghanistan) who was in Kisangani, “we were cautious with the truth. Perhaps in retrospect we could have spoken out a little more.” [23] The controversial circumstances that allowed a horrific genocide to be perpetrated in Rwanda and the subsequent war of recriminations and blame-shifting, centred around the refugee camps, were such that UNHCR should have taken recourse to clarifying its role with the help of UNDPI, whose Director is specifically instructed to publicise human rights issues and programmes undertaken by specialized agencies. UNDPI and UNHCR have recently worked in close cooperation in Armenia and the model will hopefully be carried over to future operations in the Great Lakes.

·     UNHCR’s wedded adherence to rigid notions of ‘repatriation’ and ‘non-refoulement’, (drawn largely from the constraints of its mandate) and consequent lack of flexibility cost it dearly in Zaire-Rwanda, and this poor maneuverability amidst fast-changing ground realities has invited harsh judgement from African refugee specialists. Conventional wisdom, gathered from dilettantish UNHCR situation reports (‘sitreps’), misrepresented the complex reality of the Rwandan refugee crisis and served as a poor guide for policy intervention. Although not properly indicated by UNHCR literature, it appears as if this loophole occurred partly because a number of experienced staff were unwilling to go to Zaire. “Too few senior staff members were willing to accept posts in remote and insecure duty stations.” [24] The other part of the cognisance dilemma stemmed from ‘ignorance’, according to scholars like Tony Waters. Sociologists have documented sympathy with paramilitary movements in refugee situations lie Zaire as normal, though undesirable, and commented that UNHCR’s attachment to the separation of ‘genuine refugees’ from interahamwe disregarded the phenomenon whereby “the alienated Hutu population was sympathetic to the young men, whatever they may call themselves, who mobilized and protected them in crisis situations.” [25]   The failure of voluntary repatriation was therefore not simply a matter to be blamed on international indifference or unpunished militia impunity, however causative they were, but actually a failure to understand refugee psychology. UNHCR hinted as much by admitting “a serious weakness was lack of understanding of the social, cultural and political background of the refugees” and the consequent mistaken belief that “voluntary repatriation was a quick solution.” [26] As has already been pointed out in the progress tracking, UNHCR was forced for monetary reasons to press for repatriation as the only solution. Numerous observers have suggested that a successful durable solution comprises a combination of asylum in first country of refuge, third country repatriation and voluntary repatriation, not a uni-focal panacea, and that the Office erred in its strategy of solution-finding. It must be mentioned, though, that hardly any third country was willing at that time to accept a population that intermingled and intermixed with interahamwe and Congo had its own civil war to contend with, making it hard for the ‘combination’ to materialise. These constraining external realities do not take everything away from UNHCR’s aforementioned failure to grasp the idiosyncrasy and particularity of the Great Lakes region. It would be desirable if future projects address local knowledge deficiency and provide incentives for experienced staff to attend to Zaire-like operations.

·     Changes to UNHCR’s mandate and legal foundations and introduction of new statutes catering to Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and for their inclusion in the rubric of the ‘international protection’ function have long been doing the rounds. The propositions are controversial owing to the clash in traditional international law between national sovereignty and humanitarian intervention. Unless there is a consensus that IDPs are an international (as opposed to national) responsibility, UNHCR cannot expand its coverage. Kofi Annan’s reiterations that the UN system needs “to look beyond the framework of States, and beneath the surface of nations or communities” for protecting individual human rights [27] tie well with the UNHCR mandate expansion agenda, but still lacks consensus among member states. Increasing recognition of the predicament of IDPs is, however, breaking new ground. In the Zaire operations, the intermixture of persecuted Banyamulenge minorities of the east and the Rwandese refugees led to separation and denial of aid to the former. In other words, being a ‘refugee’ automatically ensured better treatment and care by the NGOs in the field even though Mobutu’s regime was playing the race card and constantly harassing its own internally displaced subjects. Likewise, the resettlement of more than a million IDPs inside Rwanda was treated with step-motherly concern by the Office. By admission, “the organisation’s reluctance to deal directly with IDPs in Rwanda before the genocide was, in retrospect, a lost opportunity, since subsequent events showed that there was no agency capable of taking a lead with regard to this population.” [28] Piecemeal response to IDPs and people in “refugee-like conditions” in post-genocide Rwanda and Zaire was in sharp contrast to the better-coordinated assistance response to card-holding refugees. The activities and recommendations of Francis Deng, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for IDPs, should help expand UNHCR’s ambit of concerned persons beyond the traditional refugee who has crossed international borders.

·     Another area where the current UNHCR mandate was found insufficient was in the treatment of women and children as specially endangered and disturbed refugees. Widespread intimidation and violation of the rights of women and children was reported throughout the crisis period in the Great Lakes. Maximum protection of the rights of women and children, who constitute nearly 70% of the world’s refugees, while often mentioned in programme guidelines (eg. Action for the Rights of Children, ARC), should be concretised as an objective or sub-objective in UNHCR’s legal statutes and appropriate training provided to field staff. Training and guidelines should also be imparted to government counterparts and implementing partners, particularly using the experience of local NGOs which cater to women’s issues.            


UNHCR’s Zaire project was riddled with myriad shortcomings and problems, most of which were elaborated and offered management betterments in the course of this assessment. All said and done about mistakes and underperformance, tens of thousands died but hundreds of thousands were saved due to UNHCR's presence in the Great Lakes region between 1994 and 1997, a presence that entailed a record high sacrifice of twenty six field personnel killed or disappeared. One will have to agree with Sadako Ogata, in defence against the most notorious and unsavoury imputation that UNHCR willingly fed killers, that “there were also innocent refugees in the camps; more than half were women and children. Should we have said: you are related to murderers, so you are guilty, too?” [29]  The liberty and freedom to leave, exercised by NGOs en masse, was not applicable to UNHCR owing to the nature of its constitution as an Intergovernmental Organisation operating under the conditions and principles of the United Nations Charter. Yet, there are many areas that UNHCR as an IGO could have performed with alacrity and efficiency and thus set an example for the NGOs it was coordinating. There were also many internal structural flaws that UNHCR could have avoided without reflexively shifting the entire blame on to the external environment. At the turn of the millennium, UNHCR stands out as the UN’s largest and most high-profile relief agency with as many as 255 offices in 118 countries, possessing a size, presence and weight that commensurately deserve much better management and emergency response structures. It is hoped that our endeavour offered some appropriate contributions for a more efficient UNHCR that can handle future Zaire-like undertakings with greater skill and competence.



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[1] W. Shawcross Deliver Us From Evil. Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict (New York, 2000) p.245
[2] Sadruddin Aga Khan, a charismatic chief of UNHCR used to say that in theory, “the happiest day would be when UNHCR would no longer be needed”, but with the never-ending plagues of refugee tragedies, the Office has acquired a regularity and permanence.
[3] The first two functions stem from the 1950 Statute that established UNHCR and the other two arose by evolution from the nature of UNHCR’s work. Cf. N.Singh The Role and Record of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (Delhi, 1984) pp.25-6
[4] For the latter view, see L.R.Melvern A People Betrayed. The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (New York, 2000); R.Dallaire ‘The End of Innocence. Rwanda 1994’, in J.Moore (ed.) Hard Choices: Moral Dilemmas in Humanitarian Intervention (Geneva, 1998); M.Maren The Road to Hell. The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (New York, 1997)    
[5] Report of the International Panel of Eminent Personalities (IPEP) to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and the Surrounding Events Chapter 19, OAU Website
[6] G.Prunier. The Rwanda Crisis. History of a Genocide (New York, 1995) p.312
[7] The Shallow Graves of Rwanda (London, 2000) p.32
[8] Shawcross op cit pp. 142-3
[9] C.Berthiaume ‘NGOs: Our Right Arm’, in Refugees Magazine September 1994
[10] R.Wilkinson ‘Heart of Darkness’, in Refugees Magazine December 1997
[11] The Office seems to have tried to locate the camps as far away from the Rwanda border as possible, but reported having to contend with stiff resistance from Zairean locals.
[12] The issue of massacres of Zaire refugees in 1997 is controversial, with UNHCR and the UN Human Rights Commission claiming that nearly 300,000 were “hunted down” and there being evidence of mass graves at forty different sites, while the Kabila and RPF governments acknowledged killing only interahamwe among the refugees and that ‘unintentional’ deaths did not cross 30,000.  Even if the latter case was true, UNHCR failed once again in ensuring adequate security for all refugees.    
[13] IPEP Report op cit.
[14]   Despite periodic talk of ‘camp reform’ in UNHCR literature, Hutu Power control was never dislodged.
[15] Lessons Learnt from the Rwanda-Burundi Emergencies December 1996, UNHCR Website 
[16] In 1999, UNHCR appraised that the international community spent some $120 per refugee in former Yugoslavia, more than three times the $35 per head spent in West Africa.
[17] Lessons Learned
[18] ‘Refugees Agency Lost in Wilderness of Bungling and Waste’, Financial Times, 29th July 1998
[19] Enhancement of the Evaluation Function in UNHCR November 1998, UNHCR Website
[20] For particularly stinging critiques of UNHCR as a “self-serving system”, see J.Hyndman Managing Displacement: Refugees and the Politics of Humanitarianism (Minneapolis, 2000) and M.Maren op cit.
[21] Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform Secretary General’s Report, July 1997. 
[22] In October 1997, Kabila’s government expelled UNHCR from Goma, accusing it of meddling in the internal affairs of Congo by inciting repatriated Rwandese to return.
[23] Shawcross op cit. p.245
[24] Lessons Learned op cit.
[25] T.Waters ‘Conventional Wisdom and the Rwanda Genocide. An Opinion’, African Studies Quarterly, 1997 (Volume 1)
[26] Lessons Learned op cit.
[27] Nobel Lecture, December 10th 2001,
[28] Lessons Learned op cit.
[29] Wilkinson op cit. In actuality, nearly 75% of refugees worldwide are women and children. Zaire was no exception.