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Have we learned any lessons from the Rwandan genocide?

By Eithne McNulty, Regional Manager, Trócaire Belfast

Today (April 7th) marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Within the space of one hundred days in 1994, from April to June, an estimated 1 million people, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were systematically killed in Rwanda by Hutu extremists in what has become known as one of the most shameful episodes of the twentieth century.

The genocide led to one of the fastest migrations in human history as streams of Tutsi and moderate Hutus who opposed the violence, abandoned the chaos of their homeland to become refugees.

Similar to our own conflict here in Northern Ireland the violence did not erupt overnight or come from nowhere. Nor was it spontaneous. Ethnic tensions fed and fuelled the period in the run up to the genocide. Hutu politicians had spent at least four years travelling the country, training militia and drawing up lists of Tutsi. The slaughter was meticulously planned under the watching eyes of the world, who made a conscious decision not to act. When the violence finally erupted, moderate Hutus and Tutsis were abandoned. There was no protection for them.

There were warnings but the international community failed to listen resulting in murder on a scale and at a speed not seen since World War II. Rwanda was characterised by a failure to act on the early signs of genocide.

In 1992, two years before the slaughter, the Belgian ambassador in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, warned that the Hutu-led government was planning to exterminate the Tutsi. A year later, a United Nations official reported that killings were already taking place. Just as the country reached the tipping point into genocide, Roméo Dallaire, the UN commander in Rwanda at the time, pleaded for just 4,500 extra troops to stop what he warned was an impending slaughter. His repeated cries for help were ignored by the UN and by individual members of the Security Council who had the power to intervene, while the French government continued to supply weapons to the Rwanda government even as the genocide was happening. Had extra UN troops been deployed across the country with a clear mandate to protect the Tutsi population, much of the killing could have been avoided.

The genocide finally stopped when a formerly exiled Tutsi force intervened. The cessation was accompanied by familiar cries for the world to ‘never again’ allow a repeat of the atrocity. From Cambodia to Guatemala, from Darfur to Bosnia, genocides and mass killings have claimed the lives of approximately 70 million people since the end of World War II.

The tragic truth of the Rwandan genocide is that the country was of no strategic or economic interest or importance at the international level. Therefore no major power had anything to gain from halting the slaughter. In fact, in the midst of this inaction the massacres were not described as genocide for fear the term would compel those in power to act.

All humans have a right to be protected from war crimes and ethnic cleansing. If their own governments fail to do this the international community is obliged to act under the concept of The Responsibility to Protect; a concept that developed in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

Yet, today in many countries where Trócaire works such as Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic and there is a terrible slowness to respond to unbearable humanitarian need and suffering. Global diplomacy regularly fails to protect and in Syria, there have been incidents of members of the UN Security Council directly fuelling the slaughter by providing money and weapons. Reminiscent of Rwanda, the UN’s chief special adviser on genocide prevention, Adama Dieng, has recently warned the Central African Republic is at high risk of genocide.

The international community, with a history of letting down the most vulnerable, should again ask itself some questions. Do we believe in protecting civilians from atrocities? And, if so, how do we act to pre-empt the slaughter?

Twenty years after Rwanda’s tragedy, the early warning signs of mass atrocities are plainly in evidence elsewhere.

Is global ambivalence and political inertia going to idly witness the filling of mass graves in fragile states and countries such as Syria, South Sudan and the Central Africa Republic. In twenty years times will we again wring our hands and be somehow surprised it all went wrong?

Change can happen. The world’s most vulnerable people can be protected. The legal frameworks exists to allow it, but it is meaningless without the political will to either deploy well-resourced peace-keeping troops or pursue all diplomatic avenues to stop conflict.

First published in the Irish News on Monday 7 April 2014

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