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International Security 28.1 (2003) 79-109

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Collateral Damage:
Humanitarian Assistance as a Cause of Conflict

Sarah Kenyon Lischer


During the 1994-96 refugee crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide established military training bases adjacent to the Rwandan Hutu refugee camps. The militants stockpiled weapons, recruited and trained refugee fighters, and launched cross-border attacks against the new Tutsi-led regime in Rwanda. The militant leaders gloated about their manipulation of the Hutu refugees and their plan to complete the genocide of the Tutsi. From the camps, the genocidal Hutu leader Jean Bosco Barayagwiza boasted that "even if [the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front] have won a military victory they will not have the power. We have the population." 1 In late 1996, the growing strength of the militant groups provoked a Rwandan invasion of Zaire and attacks against the refugees. Until the invasion disrupted their operations, international humanitarian organizations regularly delivered food and supplies to the refugee camps and military bases. The chief executive of the American charity CARE, Charles Tapp, admitted at the time, "We are going to be feeding people who have been perpetrating genocide." 2

Since the refugee crisis, eastern Congo has become the epicenter of a regional war in which more than a dozen states and rebel groups have fought each other and plundered the region's resources. An estimated 3.3 million people have died as a result of the war, mostly from preventable diseases and malnutrition. 3 [End Page 79]

The conflict in Rwanda, and the resulting regionwide destabilization, traces its roots to ethnic polarization between Hutu and Tutsi that occurred at the end of the colonial period in 1959, which spurred thousands of Tutsi to flee the country. Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of Tutsi established themselves in neighboring Uganda and formed their own political entity, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The army of the RPF invaded Rwanda on October 1, 1990, in an attempt to topple the Hutu-dominated government of President Juvénal Habyarimana. Neither side was able to win a military victory, however. Negotiations to end the stalemated civil war resulted in the Arusha accords, a power-sharing agreement between the Habyarimana government and the RPF signed in 1993. Despite the presence of a United Nations peacekeeping contingent, Hutu hard-liners prepared for genocide, which began with the mysterious downing of President Habyarimana's plane. Experts generally agree that between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsi and some moderate Hutu perished at the hands of the killers, often referred to as génocidaires. 4 The genocide ended when the RPF defeated the Rwandan government forces and took control of the capital, Kigali, on July 4, 1994. By that time, nearly 2 million Hutu refugees had fled at the instigation of an estimated 20,000 Hutu soldiers and 50,000 militia members, who joined the refugees in exile.

A major catalyst for the regional insecurity in Central Africa was this internationally supported refugee population, which included tens of thousands of unrepentant genocide perpetrators. Between 1994 and 1996, international donors spent $1.3 billion to sustain this population. 5 These same donors refused to fund efforts to disarm the militants, much less send peacekeeping troops to do so.

Following the massive misuse of humanitarian aid in the Rwandan refugee camps, a cottage industry of critics has exposed the sometimes perverse effects of humanitarian aid and discovered that humanitarian organizations are often motivated by the same nonaltruistic incentives that affect other organizations. 6 [End Page 80] Despite the barrage of attention, it remains unclear how and why humanitarian relief exacerbates conflict. The chroniclers of international humanitarian aid's unintended consequences often suggest that the entire system is malignant. On the other side, defenders of the relief regime absolve humanitarian organizations of all wrongdoing, arguing that other parties—including perpetrators of violence, their allies, and powerful donor states—are far more culpable for the spread of conflict in a refugee crisis. 7

This article uses deductive reasoning and extended examples to explain the...


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