December 17, 2013 | National Post

Hail to the French

This coming spring will mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide, when as many as a million innocent civilians were butchered to death by Hutu tribal extremists in an orgy of bloodshed that began under the noses of United Nations peacekeepers. The world could have done more to stop the slaughter. But instead of intervening forcefully, the UN withdrew its small force, ceding the killing fields to the men with machetes. This humanitarian debacle, along with West’s failure to intervene in Darfur a decade ago, often is held up as proof that the civilized world didn’t truly learn anything from the slaughter of Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust, and that the words “never again” are forever destined to ring hollow.

And yet, often beyond the gaze of the world’s media, Western powers have intervened in poor African nations many times in recent years. And in the process, they have saved untold thousands of lives. Indeed, in some cases, these interventions might have prevented countries from spiraling into Rwandan-style massacres.

The United States, for instance, has sent special forces to assist African Union troops seeking to capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his appalling crimes against civilians, especially children. Many critics of U.S. foreign policy reflexively accuse Washington of using its interventions to pursue selfish geopolitical objectives. “War for oil” were the three words that many leftists used to describe the American campaign in Iraq, for instance. Even in Afghanistan, where Canadian troops fought bravely alongside their American and European allies, the war effort was seen as part of a 21st-century version of The Great Game. But in Uganda, as in many other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, there is little to motivate Western intervention aside from a purely humanitarian desire to bring peace and end human suffering.

Britain, too, has done good work in Africa. In 2000, as Revolutionary United Front (RUF) militia began to advance on the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, the British launched a small, but highly effective military deployment. As is often the case in sub-Saharan civil conflicts, a small, highly professionalized force of Western soldiers was able to beat back much larger militias composed of untrained fighters. During the 1999-2001 period, the British intervention saved Sierra Leone from what might have been an epic humanitarian tragedy: The RUF was created by a hideous specimen named Foday Sankoh, who butchered children in unspeakable ways, and often press-ganged the survivors into his legions. Thanks to the British and their peacekeeping allies, Sankoh was captured and sent to prison, where he died in 2003.

But perhaps no country has done more to confront African civil-war savagery in recent years than France.

The outdated stereotype has it that the French are averse to military confrontation. Yet when Ivory Coast descended into chaos over the last decade, it was the French who stepped in to restore order in its former colony. (To this day, 450 French troops remain.) The French also took the lead in the campaign to oust Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. And when al-Qaeda-linked fighters began taking over neighbouring Mali, France sent in a force of 4,000 troops that scored decisive victories against Islamist militias.

France is now joining with African peacekeepers to help restore some semblance of order in another extraordinarily remote corner of the world: The Central African Republic (CAR). Like Somalia, CAR is less a unified country than a set of lines drawn on a map. The current president is a militia leader who took power in a coup last year, and his unpaid soldiers have supported themselves with pillaging. The country’s capital, Bangui, is now under siege from both Christian and Muslim rebels. There is no front line in this struggle: Death lurks everywhere.

A week ago, France suffered its first casualties in CAR: Two paratroopers were killed in an exchange of gunfire with rebels. They died in a noble cause — protecting 4.5 million people whose lives are treated as pawns by rival militia leaders.It is not a glamorous job: Few Westerners could find CAR on a map. And the country has so little in the way of industry or riches to offer that even the most hard-boiled leftist would be hard-pressed to launch the usual claims of “neo-colonialism.” Rather, this is humanitarianism for its own sake. We Westerners rightly lambaste ourselves when we fail to take action to stop genocides from unfolding around the world. But we should also take time to salute those, such as the French in CAR, who do the right thing. They are a living rebuke to the notion that the world has learned nothing from the tragedies of the past.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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