Thursday, April 17, 2014

Remembering the Rwandan Genocide, and Learning from the Failure to Recognize It at the Time

The United Nations Security Council marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide by calling on all countries to recommit to prevent and fight such serious crimes, as a senior United Nations official warned that many of today’s conflicts reveal that protection of populations from atrocities remains “lagging and elusive.” Unanimously adopting a new resolution during a special meeting devoted to commemorating what UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson referred to as “one of the darkest chapters in human history,” the Council underscored the importance of taking into account the lessons learned from those tragic 100 days in 1994, when genocide was committed against the Tutsi in Rwanda, during which Hutu and others who opposed the genocide were also killed. 

“As we mark the passage of 20 years since the genocide, we also pay special tribute to the impressive work of the Rwandan people for their own recovery and reconciliation,” said Mr. Eliasson in opening remarks, emphasizing that in the years since the tragedy, “Rwanda has come a long way” and is one of the few countries that have established a national institution dedicated to the prevention of genocide.
  
Yet, from Syria to South Sudan to the Central African Republic ¬and beyond, today’s conflicts sadly show that efforts to protect populations from atrocities remain elusive. “These and other crises have different roots, yet there is a commonality. Across the landscape of conflict, we see similar fault lines – divisions based on religion, ethnicity, even language,” he said. 
 
“And we see the rise of separatism, of extreme nationalism and demonization of ‘the Others;’ ‘Us versus Them;’ and ‘Our way or no way,’” Mr. Eliasson warned, stressing that no country is immune from the threat and all of humanity is diminished by it. All societies must therefore assess their vulnerability and work at every level to build resilience, tolerance and vigilance in detecting early warning signals of this nature of crises to come.

Calling on all States to live up to their responsibility to prevent genocide and other atrocities, to protect and promote human rights, and to support diversity and civil society, he declared: “Let us, in these days of so many horrible acts of blind and brutalizing violence…be guided and inspired by the Preamble of the UN Charter, which reaffirms ‘the dignity and worth of the human person’ and [which] urges us to ‘live together as good neighbours’ in this world.” 

Also addressing the meeting was the former Permanent Representative of New Zealand, Colin Keating, who, in April 1994, held the presidency of the Security Council, “which refused to recognize that genocide was being perpetrated against the Tutsi in Rwanda and failed in its responsibilities to reinforce the UN peacekeeping mission [there] in order to protect as many innocent civilians as possible.” 

“My first responsibility today is to remember the victims, the almost 1 million who died, and the survivors…this briefing also provides a fitting opportunity, for me in my capacity as former President of the Council, to apologize for what we failed to do in 1994 and for that to be formally recorded in the official records of the Security Council,” he said.

Mr. Keating went on to describe the series of now well-known events of March and April 1994, during which the Council failed to recognize – or acknowledge – the signals that genocide could be sparked in Rwanda. “Even after the genocide had begun, events were being described for several weeks as simply a resurgence of the civil war. The wholesale slaughter of civilians was not being conveyed to the Council.”

He said it was only when the Force Commander, General Romeo Dallaire, found ways to bypass the UNAMIR [UN Mission in Rwanda] political staff that Headquarters in New York started briefing the Council properly. “Moreover, the Secretariat had concealed from the Council a critical piece of advice – a cable from the Force Commander in January 1994, which gave graphic early warning of a probable genocide.”

Further, another vital piece of evidence also existed in the UN system in Geneva – a report by a Special Rapporteur to the then-Human Rights Commission warning of the likelihood of genocide. “It was never drawn to the Council’s attention,” said Mr. Keating. In early May 1994, New Zealand and Nigeria each introduced draft resolutions to boost the number of troops and give the UN operation a formal civilian protection mandate. But it took until 8 June before a new resolution was agreed. 

“For the first time, the Council specifically used the word ‘genocide’,” he said.

While noting that important lessons had been learned from the genocide and some Council procedures had been adjusted in its wake, he urged all present to be keenly aware of “the cascade of tragedy that can occur when there is a failure of political will such as in 1994.”  Indeed, a toxic accumulation of events unfolded and eventually embroiled the whole Great Lakes region, he said.

“Twenty years later, you are still dealing with the consequences in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The failure in Rwanda in 1994 caused not only genocide, but it also led to an appalling humanitarian catastrophe in eastern DRC in 1995. And this led directly to the civil wars in the DRC and to human tragedy on an even more massive scale. Some estimates suggest that up to 5 million died. Major instability afflicted the region.”

“If we truly want prevention to work, then we need better political and operational and financial mechanisms for the Council and the wider UN system to achieve better outcomes,” declared Mr. Keating, appealing for new mechanisms for improved early warning, better systems for briefing and presenting options to the Council at early stages of potential crises, enhanced preventive diplomacy, quick preventive deployment, and, if all else fails, robust deterrence. 

(Adapted from a UN press release)

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