Have we learnt nothing from Rwanda?

India and Pakistan are at war. A million troops stand mobilised on either side of the 1972 line of control that separates the two countries in Kashmir. Civilians on both sides are dying in artillery exchanges. Pakistani-armed militants have attacked Indian troops and civilians in India. Pakistan and India have, by international consensus, at least 200 nuclear warheads between them. If ever the United Nations Security Council had the obligation to invoke Article 34, calling for investigation of disputes ‘likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security’, this must be it.

So what is happening at the UN? An emergency session, urgent discussions, formation of a peacekeeping force, proposed sanctions for the two parties if they escalate the conflict? Not exactly. A Reuters report conveys the urgency: ‘Security Council members agree India and Pakistan’s dispute over Kashmir should be left to bilateral diplomatic efforts outside of the UN, Syrian Ambassador Mikhail Wehbe said on Tuesday.’

The UN is abdicating its legal role. In its place, bilateral diplomacy permits the threat of nuclear war to grow. The UN Charter allows any state (Article 35) or the Secretary General (Article 99) to place any threat to international peace before the Security Council.

No one has done so. Instead, the United States has sent a Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, and is sending Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to discuss the conflict with the leaders of Pakistan and India. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has invited Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to Moscow. Britain has sent emissaries.

But there has been no concerted international effort to end the latest small-scale war or to prevent a nuclear exchange that would kill millions in both countries. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain among them, are not invoking international law to protect civilians from what will be a genocide.

American diplomacy is having as much effect on India as President George Bush’s admonition to Ariel Sharon earlier this year to withdraw his forces from Palestinian territory ‘immediately’, ‘at once’ and ‘without delay’. If Bush cannot influence a country that the US subsidises with more than $3 billion a year, why should the Indians and Pakistanis listen to him? If the US has no influence, what can little Britain or emasculated Russia do? At the UN, the US, Russia, China and the rest of the world could work together to force an agreement on two leaders who fear losing face more than than they fear the destruction of their countries.

Security Council resolutions of 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1972 established a framework for resolving the dispute over Kashmir. The UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, first deployed in 1949, remains in position to become a larger, stronger force that could help both sides to police the border. Pakistan must prevent infiltration of India and close its insurgent bases. India should be made to respect UN resolutions calling for a referendum in Kashmir. Britain’s India Act of 1947 gave the Kashmiris the right to choose to be part of India or part of Pakistan. Evolution of Kashmiri opinion since means that any referendum must allow for a third option: independence. The only international forum that could force a referendum is the UN. It can impose an arms embargo and other sanctions on India and Pakistan if they ignore UN resolutions.

The UN is missed a similar opportunity to prevent the planet’s last act of genocide in Rwanda in 1994. President Clinton did not want the UN to intervene. He feared that invoking the UN’s Genocide Convention would mean sending American troops again to Africa in the aftermath of the Somalia débcle. The UN commander in Rwanda, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, had 2,500 troops. He pleaded with the chief of peacekeeping in New York for another 3,000, plus armoured cars and other protective equipment, to prevent the genocide that his informants assured him was on the way.

His UN force was so ill-prepared that General Dallaire cabled to the UN: ‘They [UN troops] will hand over these local people for inevitable killing rather than use their weapons to save local people.’ The local UN commander in Kigali, Belgian Colonel Luc Marchal, told me later: ‘I still have the feeling that we were in a desert… during weeks and weeks, we were crying and nobody answered us.’ More than 800,000 Rwandans were butchered by Hutu extremists using rifles, machetes and knives.

The US, Belgium and France were informed about conditions in Rwanda. So was the head of UN peacekeeping, Kofi Annan. Neither Annan nor the US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, informed the UN or called for an emergency session. Annan became UN Secretary General. Albright was appointed Secretary of State by Bill Clinton, who went on to win a second term of office. The lesson was: keep quiet, ignore genocide and win promotion.

Rwandans killed nearly a million of their own with primitive weapons. How many more can Vajpayee and Musharraf kill with their armouries of mass destruction? What precedent will UN inaction now set for other countries – Russia, China or Israel – considering the quick fix of an atomic bomb or two?

Perhaps times have not changed all that much. On Armistice Day in 1948, American General Omar Bradley lamented: ‘Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.’