JUST ONE month after the United Nations released a self-incriminating report on the massacre in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, another equally damning report has appeared on Rwanda. During 100 days in 1994, a staggering 800,000 civilians were slaughtered in this small Central African state. The United Nations had 2,500 troops in the area in early 1994. All but a few hundred were withdrawn when the killing started.
This awful abdication had many authors. The report, which was commissioned by the United Nations and compiled by an independent team, names both Kofi Annan and his predecessor as U.N. secretary-general among the culprits. But it also blames Madeleine Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, for playing down the massacre and resisting intervention. President Clinton apologized for American inaction on a trip to Rwanda last year. On Thursday Mr. Annan apologized as well, calling the report "thorough and objective."
The U.N. claims to have learned some lessons from Rwanda. Its bureaucracy failed to respond to several warnings of impending genocide: Six months before the massacre, for example, a report by the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva signaled what was to come, but the report never made it to the desks of senior peacekeeping officials in New York, who might have acted on it. That failure of communication is less likely now. Mr. Annan has instituted weekly meetings of top officials from all U.N. agencies, and those based in Geneva or other outposts participate by teleconference.
Still, better internal communication is not the whole answer: The U.N.'s ability to respond to crises can be only as strong as the will of its leading members to provide necessary resources. Mr. Annan is better at goading member governments into action than his predecessor was. But Russia and China are inclined to veto U.N. action that might set a precedent for future international interventions in Chechnya or Tibet, and the United States and Europe often balk at costly or dangerous missions.
Given its membership, the U.N. will never meet all of the world's many humanitarian challenges. But it should at least avoid empty efforts that serve to excuse the world's inaction. The shame of the Srebrenica massacre was that the U.N. had stationed a token peacekeeping force in the town, large enough for the world to pretend that it cared about the fate of Bosnian Muslims, but too small actually to help them. The shame of Rwanda, likewise, is that the U.N. did send a token force to the region, as a salve to its members' consciences, but then stood by as the horror unfolded.
If the world's leading governments are indifferent to genocide, the U.N. should not act as the vehicle for token interventions to hide their shame. It should use that shame to fight indifference; it should broadcast the horror of genocide to voters and stir the outrage that might produce serious intervention. Mr. Annan likes to say that the U.N. should not be neutral in the face of evil. Indifference to evil is not a matter for polite neutrality either.