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Rwanda genocide anniversary: are we ever going to make the words ‘never again’ mean something?

By Éamonn Meehan, Executive Director

Twenty years ago I witnessed one of the fastest migrations in human history, as a seemingly endless stream of Rwandans abandoned their homes to become refugees.

They were fleeing a country in chaos. Hutu extremists were continuing to massacre members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, while the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a force largely comprised of Tutsi, were advancing from the north in response to the slaughter.

Militia roadblocks hunted for Tutsi. Travelling with us were up to twenty Tutsi and it was only through skilful negotiation by a Bosnian priest, Fr. Vjeko Curic, OFM, that we managed to successfully cross the border to Burundi unharmed.

Our Tutsi companions were leaving behind a country in the grip of a coordinated attempt to exterminate them. Over the course of 100 days, close to one million people, mostly Tutsi, were murdered. The Rwanda genocide saw murder on a scale and at a speed not seen since World War II.

When the genocide was finally stopped by formerly exiled Tutsi forces, familiar cries of ‘never again’ rang around the world. Since 1945, these two words have greeted the end of several mass slaughters. 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.

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, we must ask: are we ever going to make the words ‘never again’ mean something?

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 genocide was about to be unleashed, 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.

The genocide was not spontaneous. 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, following the shooting down of an airplane carrying Rwanda’s President, Juvénal Habyarimana, Hutu extremists finally unleashed the genocide on April 7th, 1994, the Tutsi people, as well as moderate Hutus who opposed the killings, were left abandoned.

Had extra troops been deployed across the country with a clear mandate to protect the Tutsi population, much of the killing could have been avoided. 

Such was the reluctance to intervene that the massacres were initially not acknowledged as genocide for fear that use of that term would compel the world to act. The sad truth is that Rwanda was of no strategic importance and so no major power had anything to gain by halting the slaughter.

In the wake of the Rwanda genocide, the concept of The Responsibility to Protect emerged in international relations. The basis of this concept is that all humans have a right to be protected from war crimes and ethnic cleansing, and that if their own government fails them, the international community is obliged to act.

When we look at the mass atrocities taking place in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, to name just three, we must question why we have failed to uphold our obligations under The Responsibility to Protect.

The discovery of mass graves in South Sudan has echoes of Rwanda, where isolated massacres occurred long before a coordinated nationwide campaign was unleashed. These graves are a chilling vision of what potentially awaits South Sudan should it continue on its current path.

Like South Sudan, the Central African Republic is currently in the grip of ethnic conflict. Up to one million people have already fled their homes amid widespread reports of massacres based on religious lines. Adama Dieng, the UN’s chief special adviser on genocide prevention, has warned that the country is at a high risk of genocide.

In Syria we have seen a slowness to respond to incredible humanitarian need. Not only has global diplomacy failed to protect civilians in Syria, we have seen members of the UN Security Council directly fuel the slaughter by providing money and weapons.

The international community must ask itself some fundamental questions. Do we believe in protecting civilians from atrocities? And, if so, how do we act to pre-empt the slaughter?

The legal framework for such action exists, but it is meaningless without the political will to either deploy well-resourced peace-keeping troops or pursue all diplomatic avenues to stop conflict.

Twenty years after the slaughter in Rwanda, the seeds of mass atrocities are being sown elsewhere. Is the world content to sit by and watch as mass graves fill up with the bodies of innocent people in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic? In five years time,will we collectively shake our heads and solemnly say ‘never again’?

Unless we are willing to act at an early stage to prevent such slaughters, those words will be as empty as the destroyed towns and cities they will leave behind.

First published in the Irish Independent on Monday 7 April 2014.

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