The World Must Always Remember How It Failed Rwanda


This year so sadly marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. We all recall that now Senator Roméo Dallaire, as Force Commander of the United Nations Mission in Rwanda, sounded the alarm about the frightening developments in the country.

Yet he did not receive the response he needed and, above all, the response which the people of Rwanda needed.

Others, too, tried to alert and mobilise the international community.  In 1993, a United Nations Special Rapporteur warned that all the precursors of genocide were visible in Rwanda.  But the United Nations system and the world were not able to stop the events unfolding on the ground.

The consequences of failing to heed the warning signs were monumentally horrifying.  We must never forget the collective failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide.  Repeating the phrase “never again” is in itself a sign of continued failure.

Over the years, there have been several proposals to improve action by the United Nations in the face of grave crimes and violations of human rights.  Some of these recommendations emerged from two landmark exercises in self-scrutiny: 1) the 1999 Independent Inquiry on United Nations Action in Rwanda and 2) the United Nations Secretariat’s 1999 review of the fall of Srebrenica.

One of the first areas in which we saw progress was on criminal accountability for atrocity crimes.  The Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda to prosecute alleged perpetrators.

In September 2005, Member States endorsed the concept of Responsibility to Protect. I was very proud to be the President of the General Assembly at that time. In recent years we have also taken steps to strengthen genocide prevention, conflict resolution, the protection of civilians, the rule of law and human rights mechanisms.  As a result, the United Nations and the international system are now better prepared to anticipate, prevent and, I would strongly hope, respond to crises.

Let me acknowledge the role played by civil society in these efforts. Civil society plays a very important role and I particularly want to commend here the Global Centre for R2P for its work under the leadership of Dr. Simon Adams.

But I also want to acknowledge the courage and commitment of many individuals, including United Nations staff in the field, who are providing early warning and supporting local and national efforts to protect human rights and stop the conflicts from escalating.

We need look no further than South Sudan today for an example of dedication and innovation in protecting people.  In spite of a tragically great number of people being killed in the conflict, thousands of civilians are alive today because they have sought shelter inside United Nations facilities and have been provided with protection and assistance.

Conditions there are trying and difficult, and the situation remains volatile.  But, for the moment, people are largely safe and the United Nations is doing its utmost to see to their needs while promoting a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

However, let us admit that the lessons we have learned over the years have not always been followed by action.  Since the tragedy in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of people have died in mass atrocities and tens of millions have been displaced.

Over the last few weeks alone, men, women and children have been slaughtered not only in South Sudan but also in the Central African Republic and in the nightmare of Syria.

The consequences for victims and their families over the past two decades have been staggering.  The wider impact has been disastrous for peace and security as well as for the economic and social development of entire regions.

This is all the more so because of the deeply worrying and growing divisions along religious or ethnic lines that we are witnessing in many nations.  The demonization – I use that word intentionally – of people of different faiths or ethnic belonging is one of the most toxic deeds of which human beings are capable.

I thank all those involved in organising events in sad memory of the huge tragedy in Rwanda twenty years ago.  The United Nations will continue to work hand-in-hand with the people of Rwanda and with the peoples of the world towards lasting peace, development and human rights – towards a Life of Dignity for All.

This article was extracted from UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson’s speech at the ‘Global Conversations on the 1994 Genocide’, at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, on Wednesday.

By: Jan Eliasson


Read the following comment

There is this consistent attempt by the UN to rewrite the organization’s decision-making leading to, during and after the 1994 Genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi to make it look as if it was a result of failure.

This is pernicious revisionism which deprives the world of the opportunity to draw the right lessons from this well predicted and thus preventable international crime.The most important fact from which to start is that the Genocide wasn’t a result of any failure.

Everyone knew what was afoot, but the major UN Security Council powers that could have made a difference were either in collusion with the genocide planners (the specific case of France) or did not care enough to overcome their reluctance to oppose a fellow UNSC permanent member and NATO ally (the case of US and UK).

Post-USSR Russia was still a marginal power in global political decision-making and China is always reluctant to take the lead in matters beyond its borders, even today when its global trading status means geopolitical developments are of critical importance to Beijing’s policy-makers.

The few UN Security Council diplomats to express concern with the way UN was handling the Rwandan crisis and which they could clearly see was leading to a human catastrophe (Ambassadors Kovinda of Czevhoslovakia, Keating of New Zealand and Gambari of Nigeria) had little power as representatives of non-permanent members to counteract French pro-genocidaire influence at the UN.

And so by default (which is itself a form of a decision) the UN decided to let matters unfold as they did and let the genocidal chips fall wherever they might. It is quite possible the major Security Council powers and the Boutros Boutros Ghali-Kofi Annan UN secretariat never believed, even with the Genocide, the parallel military conflict would end in stalemate and the UN would be called upon to help negotiate and oversee a settlement.

None of them could foresee in 1994 that the RPA would completely defeat the genocidal forces and thus become the principal determinant of Rwanda’s post-Genocide political dispensation.

The real lessons of the UN’s criminal malfeasance in the Genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi is that as long as UN geopolitical action is driven not by universal principles of equality of all nations and equality of the value of each human life but rather by the narrow selfish interests of the major permanent members of the UN Security Council, then more genocides are inevitable.

The current UN action in the DRC in which the focus has been on the M23, ignoring or even empowering the FDLR heirs to the 1994 genocidaires is proof positive that nothing has changed.

Nothing will until the global governance system and structure are reformed in such a way that international action truly reflects globally agreed universal principles rather than the narrow interests of a few powerful states.



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