Why did Canada ignore warnings of Rwandan Tutsi genocide?

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Months before the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a steady stream of detailed messages about the killings of Tutsis arrived in Ottawa from Canadian diplomats stationed not only in Rwanda but also Kenya and Tanzania.

Never-before-seen documents obtained by the Star paint a clear picture of a Rwanda rife with ethnic tension, spiraling deeper and deeper toward war in the months leading up to the April genocide. All of it was laid out for the Canadian government of the day.

Telexes from the Canadian mission in the capital of Kigali in February and March 1994 report that the U.N. mission in Rwanda had proof of the existence of training camps for militia recruits, a massive distribution of arms. The telexes also warn there have been many “deaths by bullets” in which the “marksmen” walk away with impunity.

But the warnings never moved beyond the Africa desk in Ottawa at what was then known as the department of external affairs.

André Ouellet, the then-minister in Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government, said in an interview with the Star that this kind of specific information never made it to his desk.

“I suspect if it had come to me I would remember or remember some of it,” said the now-retired Ouellet.

He explains that such documents would have gone from the missions to the analysts on the Africa desk, rather than the minister or his deputy minister.

“I would not have seen any of those documents you’re talking about. People who are in missions are not sending documents to the minister or the deputy,” said Ouellet.

As the Rwanda genocide unfolded, the world was focused on other hotspots like Bosnia and Haiti.

“CNN was not there (in Rwanda), unfortunately,” Ouellet said. “Had they been there, maybe the genocide would have been avoided.”

Parliament, and more recently Governor General Michaëlle Jean, have apologized for the Canadian role in global indifference to a genocide that ultimately claimed as many as a million lives, but never for specific indifference by Ottawa.

Those who have studied the Canadian response have concluded that the flow of information to Ottawa was good — perhaps the best in the world — but that Rwanda was not on the government’s agenda.

“The government never let on it had information,” said Maj. Brent Beardsley, the military aide to Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, who headed the U.N. force in Rwanda.

Beardsley wrote the reports for the United Nations and said each one of them was also sent along to the department of national defence in Ottawa.

“Africa and Rwanda were not a priority,” Beardsley said in a phone interview. “Canada was the best informed nation in the world (on what was happening in Rwanda.)

By April 15, “we were reporting ‘ethnic cleansing.’ That was the word we were using because it had come out of the Balkans. Genocide wasn’t in our vocabulary,” he said.

“Ottawa knew something was going on. . . everyone was sitting back and waiting for some else to take a lead.”

The genocide was triggered by the April 6, 1994, assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.

But as early as Feb. 17, 1994, Denis Provost, Canadian consul in Rwanda, sent Ottawa a fax of a press statement from a meeting of African ambassadors in Rwanda. That fax, written on United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda letterhead, said the ambassadors “deplored the attitude of the politicians of Rwanda.”

The faxed statement also recounted that U.N. officials had evidence of training camps for militia recruits who were being armed to fight — a reference to a plot for a widespread massacre of Tutsis that a source known simply as Jean-Pierre had outlined to Dallaire.

On Feb. 22, 1994, an unnamed Canadian official in Kigali reported on the assassination of two local politicians and warned that the situation was “tenuous” for citizens.

On March 2. the diplomat alerted officials back home that massacres were occuring in Kigali and there were many “deaths by bullets” with those responsible walking away with impunity.

The telexes also report widespread violence in various neighborhoods of Kigali as a Canadian diplomat witnesses cases of assault and looting and warns that it appears hundreds of people are being killed in the night.

In Ottawa, Rwanda’s civil war came up in the House of Commons, beginning April 14, 1994. The massacres were discussed in the context of a possible coup and civil war or as “violent fighting . . . between the Rwanda army and the rebels.” Concerns in the House centred on the issues of refugees, humanitarian needs and ceasefires.

The 260 pages of documents obtained by the Star detail the escalating violence against the Tutsi population of Rwanda.

One of the documents is an advisory on April 7 of the death of Habyarimana and a message from diplomats that his daughter is blaming his murder on the Tutsi-dominated rebel group the Rwanda Patriotic Front.

Ouellet told the House he had called Canada’s representative to the U.N. who was considering the best way to restore order. And Canada sent two military planes to Nairobi to help with supplies and humanitarian efforts.

On May 2, 1994 Ouellet told the House of Commons that perhaps the Organization for African Unity might be able to find ways to stop the factions in Rwanda from killing each other. He also said CIDA had donated $1 million for emergency aid and another $2 million had been donated to the International Red Cross.

Calling the genocide a “terrible tragedy,” Ouellet says now that if he had known explicitly what was going on in Rwanda or had access and read the situation reports directly, he might have done more, suggesting he might have lobbied the United Nations to act to stop the genocide. Canada was not on the Security Council in 1994.

“You know we are all responsible in the sense nobody woke up on time,” he said.

The prevalent attitude about Rwanda in 1994 was “it’s not our business,” said Gerry Caplan who wrote a 300-page report Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, for the International Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. Caplan believes the messages obtained by the Star were shuffled off to the then external affairs department’s Africa desk and filed. It was standard procedure, Caplan said.

Adds Howard Adelman, a professor emeritus of philosophy at York University who has also reported on the Rwandan genocide: “The diplomatic core doesn’t write about what’s going on, but what’s on the agenda of what’s going on in Ottawa or Washington,” he said, explaining the inscrutable art of diplomatic message writing.

“You give the information, but the information is only significant if it is attached to an agenda item in your capital. If you just send the information it’s stored, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Not only were messages going to Canada’s external affairs and CIDA, but also staff at the department of national defence was being copied on daily bulletins from Dallaire.

Said Beardsley: “What’s the sense of sending it (messages and information) up,” he said of the mandarins back in Ottawa. “You know what you’re working on is not a priority and no one wants to do anything about it. So you read it, file it. No one’s interested. That sums up Canada and the United Nations. It wasn’t a priority and therefore the stuff just got filed with devastating consequences.”

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One thought on “Why did Canada ignore warnings of Rwandan Tutsi genocide?

  1. Very painful to hear this indifference og the international community. What is more painful is the way most of the powerful countries, the same who watched the genocide against the Tutsi have been hosting the criminals who committed that genocide, which ultimately means that the indeference was intentional. But when it is about cutting aid, or ironically teaching democracy and human rights, these countries wake up. That is very hypocrite

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