A qualified apology to the people of Rwanda by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, for the failure of the world body to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide, comes at a time when the United Nations is under fire again because of the the limitations of its peacekeeping efforts.
Annan is one of several key officials cited in a ‘New Yorker’ magazine article this week for failing to act after learning three months in advance about genocide plans in Rwanda.
On Thursday, when he arrived in Kigali, Annan was quick to offer an apology to the Rwandan people but his comments revealed as much about the United Nations’ limited ability to respond to world crises as it did about his personal regret.
“All of us who cared about Rwanda, all of us who witnessed its suffering, fervently wish that we could have prevented the genocide,” Annan said in Kigali.
“Looking back now, we see the signs which then were not recognised. Now we know that what we did was not nearly enough – not enough to save Rwanda from itself, not enough to honour the ideals for which the United Nations exists.”
At the same time, the secretary-general – who headed the U.N. department of peacekeeping when the massacres broke out after the death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana in a suspicious Apr. 6, 1994, plane crash – put much of the blame on other nations.
The New Yorker article stated that Annan and his current chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, had seen a fax in January 1994 warning of the genocide plans of the Habyarimana. But the secretary-general dismissed the information as an “old story.” He also denied that U.N. officials could have done more even if officials, aware of the possibility of genocide, had shared the information more widely.
“The failure to prevent the 1994 genocide was local, national, and international, including (the failure of) member states with important capability,” argued a U.N. statement, released after publication of the New Yorker. “The fundamental failure was the lack of political will, not the lack of information.”
True the story has circulated for several years, a fact that repeatedly has drawn the United Nations back to the fundamental question over whether it did enough to prevent the loss of at least half-a-million lives – or even one million.
The details are not in dispute. In January, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, military head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) – a peacekeeping force then numbering some 2,700 soldiers – faxed Annan’s office with a request to protect an informant.
According to the informant, the Habyarimana government was preparing lists of the country’s minority Tutsis – drawing suspicion that the Hutu-majority government was planning to kill them. U.N. officials have claimed for two years that the United Nations responded by informing the Rwanda-based ambassadors of Belgium, France and the United States, as well as the Rwandan government, of what it knew about the fax.
Very little action followed. Despite Belgium’s colonial rule over Rwanda, and French and U.S. interests since then, none of the three nations made any decision on expanding either U.N. or outside peacekeeping.
As Riza, then assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, told Gourevitch, the Dallaire fax arrived just three months after 18 U.S. troops died in a failed mission – independent from, but linked to, a U.N. peacekeeping effort – in Somalia.
The sombre mood in Washington following the Somalia fiasco led to U.S. President Bill Clinton establishing in 1994 a list of prerequisites for any further American support of U.N. peacekeeping. Under those stringent rules, Washington did not support any new, full-fledged U.N. missions in Africa until it allowed the creation of a small force in the Central African Republic this year.
Many U.N. officials claim, therefore, they are being blamed for inaction at a time when the world’s major power itself was unwilling to act.
In fact, even when the massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus picked up steam in April, the U.N. Security Council – on which the United States and France hold veto power – chose not to expand military efforts in Rwanda but to cut UNAMIR down to a skeleton staff of 270. U.N. peacekeeping did not return in substantial numbers to Rwanda until after rebels – who now form the government of Rwanda – overthrew the remnants of the post-Habyarimana regime in July.
The visible withdrawal of the UNAMIR troops amid the heaviest fighting has since strained relations between the Rwandan government and the United Nations. “We don’t trust the United Nations,” argued Manzi Bakuramutsa, former Rwandan Ambassador to the U.N. “They don’t fight – they just run away.”
The distrust has boiled over repeatedly, and has affected a U.N. investigation into alleged 1996-97 massacres by Congolese forces – backed by Rwanda – of Rwandan refugees linked to the genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire). Most recently, Rwanda took responsibility for trying war crimes into its own hands by executing 22 people convicted of genocide last month.
In response, the United Nations has tried to step up the workings of its troubled Rwanda war crimes tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, to prove that its own brand of justice works. Last week, the tribunal announced that the Rwandan prime minister during the genocide, Jean Kambanda, had confessed his guilt in what Annan called “a historic moment”.
“Finally we are beginning to see the tribunal working to our, and your, satisfaction – and to the satisfaction of the victims of genocide,” Annan said in offering a promise of renewed cooperation between the United Nations and Rwanda.
Despite a chilly reception in Kigali, Annan stressed “the United Nations is prepared to help, and to advise in whichever way your people may wish.”