Rwanda: Lessons on Preventing Genocide 1

The general who led United Nations peacekeepers during the Rwanda genocide says early warning signs are the key to preventing atrocities. Hadley Griffin reports.

Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire led UN peacekeeping in Rwanda during the genocide. Eugenie Mukeshimana, head of Genocide Survivors Support Network, stands next to him. Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal/Bo Li

Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire led UN peacekeeping in Rwanda during the genocide. Eugenie Mukeshimana, head of Genocide Survivors Support Network, stands next to him.
Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal/Bo Li

Twenty years ago, Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire briefed a small panel on his UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, which was unable to prevent genocide in the East African country. In mid-January, the retired general gave the keynote talk in the same room to a much bigger group; more than 450 people crammed into the room at UN headquarters for the panel discussion on “Genocide: A Preventable Crime.” However, Dallaire and other speakers said that, despite this greater attention to genocide prevention, the international community remains slow to act.

The conference on preventing genocide drew more than 450 people to a meeting room at UN headquarters. Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal/Bo Li

The conference on preventing genocide drew more than 450 people to a meeting room at UN headquarters.
Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal/Bo Li

UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, another featured speaker, said that repeating the phrase “never again” is in itself a sign of continued failure. He noted, however, that the international community has made progress toward criminal accountability for atrocities, endorsed the international doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, and shown dedication and innovation in protecting civilians in South Sudan and in the Central African Republic.

The conference focused on what Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Mathilde Mukantabana, called “being good students of this [Rwandan] tragic history,” particularly in addressing current crises in Syria, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

During the 1994 Rwanda genocide, ethnic Hutu extremists slaughtered about 800,000 civilians, mostly ethnic Tutsis and but also politically moderate Hutus. A small UN peacekeeping force was in the country to supervise a cease fire, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the genocidal forces after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed and UN forces were drastically reduced. Despite repeated requests for assistance and documentation of the ongoing atrocities, the United Nations denied support. (Read the independent report for the UN on its actions in Rwanda.)

After the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the genocidal forces, the UN Security Council quickly established an international tribunal to prosecute the leaders of the genocide, as outlined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In 2005, the international community established the Responsibility to Protect, which specifies that states must protect their citizens from mass atrocities and that, if they fail to do so, other states have a responsibility to intervene. Most UN member states have pledged support for this doctrine.

The atmosphere at the conference was composed as the initial panelists pointed out the failures of the international community, the call to action, and the tools necessary to focus more intently on upholding human rights. However, what began as a 20th anniversary discussion of the failure to help Rwandans, turned into an emotional and fervent message when Ambassador Mukantabana turned to thank Dallaire for his efforts and dedication in 1994.

Mukantabana went silent as she turned to him, collected herself, then said quietly into the microphone how emotional the moment was for her. Dallaire, in his usual humble manner, nodded towards her recognition. She continued to thank him, to acknowledge the respect for him in Rwanda today, and to point out the lessons that should be heeded.

Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Mathilde Mukantabana, thanked Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire for his efforts to halt the genocide in her country. Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal/Bo Li

Rwanda’s ambassador to the United States, Mathilde Mukantabana, thanked Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire for his efforts to halt the genocide in her country.
Photo courtesy of Africa Renewal/Bo Li

While his demeanor was calm, his words slow and steady, the power with which Dallaire delivered his critical account and the call to action to prevent conflict was inescapable. Through his current work on genocide prevention and human rights, he maintains that the key instrument for prevention is the focus on early warning signs, particularly the massive use of child soldiers as weapons of war against civilians.

“You don’t neutralize a weapon by picking up the pieces afterwards,” he stated. In a bold declaration of support for the organization that had fallen so far short in supporting him in Rwanda, Dallaire expressed a fundamental belief that the UN has what it needs to protect human rights.

He stared into the audience, demanding to know, “Are all humans human? Or are some more human than others?” Dallaire recalled a Rwandan child solider, about the age of his own son, who shoved an AK47 in his face in 1994; he asked whether that boy was any less human. He questioned whether the yardstick to measure what constitutes humanity has changed since then.

Dalliare recounted a conversation with a UN troop leader following orders to pull out of Rwanda in 1994 in which the man (the general stated that he refused to call him a “gentleman”) said to him, “The only thing that’s here are human beings and there are too many of them anyway. It’s overpopulated.” Dallaire condemned such unwillingness to “see sweat and tears fall in foreign lands” as a lack of “intestinal fortitude.”

Panelist Eugenie Mukeshimana, a Rwanda genocide survivor, was in high school in Kigali, the capital, when the genocide began. At that age, she remarked, she didn’t care about politics, but it was still impossible to ignore. Twenty years later, she spoke with clarity about the taunts of “We will get you some day” hurled at her on the way to school and about an entire nation chanting, “We will exterminate you.”

However, Mukeshimana said, the Belgian UN presence meant something; it felt like “somebody was watching.” As a young person during the atrocities, she supported the notion that education, prevention, and concrete action were key to ensuring that the next youth generation will see the world differently. She is founder and executive director of Genocide Survivors Support Network.

In summation, Dr. Stephen Smith, executive producer of the Rwandan genocide commemoration event Kwibuka 20, spoke about the work to honor this anniversary with the themes of “remember, unite, renew.” In an effort to promote “never again” in a concrete manner, Kwibuka 20 is partnering with events that are happening all over the world and being broadcast worldwide—including in Rwanda.

“The future is our responsibility,” Smith stated, “even if we can’t change the past.”

For more on the conference, “Genocide: A Preventable Crime – A Global Conversation on Understanding Early Warning of Mass Atrocities 20 Years After the Genocide Against the Tutsis of Rwanda”

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One comment

  1. Very interesting – thanks for sharing. I was In Rwanda in 2012 and was struck by the innovative and effective ways that the country has dealt with the aftermath of genocide. Most notably the system of traditional courts which operate a form of restorative justice. But, as you say, prevention has to be the top priority.

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