Get the free mobile apps

Get the latest news from us on our apps.

Download app from Android Download app from Apple

UN seeking to avert a 'new Rwanda'

Get monthly

UN seeking to avert a 'new Rwanda'

Human rights, conflict prevention key to barring future genocides, says Annan
From Africa Renewal: 
AFP/Getty Images/Gianluigi Guercia
A Rwandan sits vigil at a memorial site to the 1994 genocide. Photo: AFP/Getty Images/Gianluigi Guercia

Could the world witness another mass slaughter like the one that claimed hundreds of thousands of Rwandans a decade ago? As commemorative meetings were held across the globe on 7 April to mark the tenth anniversary of that genocide, many speeches included the refrain "never again." But beyond such affirmations, there was little confidence that the world is yet able to thwart a similar horror.

"Confronted by a new Rwanda today, could and would governments respond effectively, in good time?" UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan asked in a message read on his behalf at the official ceremony in Kigali, Rwanda. "We can by no means be certain this would happen."

Many commentators pointed towards the current killings in the Darfur region of western Sudan as an immediate challenge (see "Killings and hunger stalk western Sudan"). In an address before the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva on the day of the Rwanda anniversary, Mr. Annan specifically cited reports of serious human rights abuses and the mounting humanitarian crisis in Darfur, affirming that "the international community cannot stand idle."

As he has done repeatedly since becoming Secretary-General, Mr. Annan acknowledged in that speech that the UN Secretariat, the Security Council, national governments and the international media had all failed to pay enough attention to the gathering signs of disaster in Rwanda. And as the signs mounted, they failed to act.

As a result, some 800,000 women, children and men were killed in Rwanda within the space of just 100 days. Most victims belonged to the minority Tutsi ethnic group, but many from the Hutu majority who opposed the government's repressive policies also were killed. The genocide ended only when the rebel Rwanda Patriotic Front seized power in Kigali.

Since the dead cannot be brought back to life, Mr. Annan said in his Geneva address, "the only fitting memorial" the UN can offer those who perished in 1994 is a plan of action to prevent future genocides. The plan involves five broad areas of activity:

  • Preventing armed conflict: Since genocide almost always occurs during war, governments and the international community must address the underlying causes of conflict. These include hatred, racism, the dehumanization of minorities, tyranny, poverty, inequality, youth unemployment and competition for scarce resources.
  • Protecting civilians in armed conflict: When conflicts do erupt, one of the highest priorities should be protecting civilians. All combatants, state and non-state alike, must be reminded of their responsibility under international law to protect civilians. Peacekeeping missions must have the capacity to act when civilians are endangered.
  • Ending impunity: National and international courts must be strengthened to make certain that perpetrators of genocide or other large-scale acts of violence do not escape prosecution.
  • Ensuring early, clear warning: The signs of impending or potential genocide must be quickly recognized and disseminated.
  • Taking swift and decisive action: National governments, the Security Council and other bodies must have the political will to move quickly and effectively to block the development of genocide or to halt it if it has begun.

Human rights to the fore

One of the reasons for the failure to act in Rwanda, Mr. Annan noted, was that "beforehand we did not face the fact that genocide was a real possibility. And once it started, for too long we could not bring ourselves to recognize it, or call it by its name."

At a memorial conference held in New York on 26 March, UN Special Adviser on Africa and Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari elaborated on this point, drawing on his own experience as Nigerian ambassador in 1994 during the Security Council discussions of Rwanda. "United States officials would not allow the word 'genocide' to be used in public comments and in particular during the deliberations of the Security Council," he observed. The reluctance to use the word, Mr. Gambari felt, stemmed from fear among key Council members that it would increase pressure to act, under the 1948 UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.

African countries must strengthen their own national and continental institutions to prevent the slaughter of civilians. "We have to learn to protect each other," Rwandan President Paul Kagame said on the anniversary of the genocide.

While recognizing the reality of genocide is important, Secretary-General Annan said in his Geneva address, he also warned that "we must not be held back by legalistic arguments about whether a particular atrocity meets the definition of genocide or not. By the time we are certain, it may often be too late to act." Therefore, preventing genocide requires moving more quickly and seriously to stem large-scale abuses of human rights, especially when directed against ethnic, racial or religious groups.

Mr. Annan announced the creation of a new post at the UN, a special adviser on the prevention of genocide. The adviser will sound the alarm by reporting through the Secretary-General to the Security Council and the General Assembly, as well as to the UN Commission on Human Rights. The adviser's mandate, Mr. Annan stressed, "will refer not only to genocide but also to mass murder and other large-scale human rights violations, such as ethnic cleansing."

Civil society groups also can play a vital role, Mr. Annan added. "Often it is their reports that first draw attention to an impending catastrophe."

The Commission on Human Rights has a special responsibility, he said, because it has an established system of special rapporteurs, independent experts and working groups that can investigate and help publicize major abuses. Several recent reports of the UN high commissioner for human rights have raised particularly sharp warnings about attacks against ethnic and religious groups, most notably in Sudan and Côte d'Ivoire.

From Darfur to Abidjan

The report on Sudan, released in early May, noted the alarming scale of the crisis in the Darfur region, with widespread killing of civilians and burning of villages. The investigators found that an "ethnically-based rebellion has been met with an ethnically-based response." They also asserted: "A disturbing pattern of disregard for basic principles of human rights and humanitarian law is taking place in Darfur by both the armed forces of Sudan and its proxy militia."

That same month, the high commissioner for human rights also released a report of a special commission of inquiry sent to Côte d'Ivoire to investigate the brutal suppression of an anti-government protest on 25 March in Abidjan, the country's largest city. The march had been called by opposition parties to demand that the government fully implement the peace accords signed by all parties to end the civil war that began in September 2002, largely along ethnic and religious lines.

Although the demonstrators were unarmed, they were almost immediately attacked by police, troops and irregular militia forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo. That day and the next, these forces fanned through the poor districts of Abidjan inhabited mainly by members of predominantly Muslim northern ethnic groups or immigrants from Burkina Faso, Mali and other neighbouring countries. At least 120 people were killed, and possibly many more, the commission found.

"What happened on 25 and 26 March," the commission reported, "was the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians and the committing of massive human rights violations. The march became a pretext for what turned out to be a carefully planned and executed operation by the security forces . . . as well as special units and the so-called parallel forces, under the direction and responsibility of the highest authorities of the state."

Pointing to the frequency of serious ethnic tensions and gross human rights violations across the continent, numerous African commentators have highlighted the dangerous potential for large-scale butchery in their own countries. After a Rwanda anniversary prayer meeting in Uganda, Housing Minister Francis Babu told reporters that the tendency of some Ugandan politicians to divide the population "along tribal lines" could lead to "similar massacres like those that took place in Rwanda." An opinion article in the daily Ghanaian Chronicle, citing ethnic killings in Ghana's Northern Region, asked in its headline, "Rwanda 10 years later: Could it happen in Ghana?"

Ending impunity

After taking up the report on Côte d'Ivoire, the UN Security Council, through its president, not only condemned the violations of human rights there, but also called for "an end to impunity" by making sure that those responsible "be held accountable." The Council welcomed the commission's decision to investigate all human rights violations in Côte d'Ivoire since the start of the war.

In his Geneva speech, Mr. Annan highlighted the special role of accountability: "We have little hope of preventing genocide, or reassuring those who live in fear of its recurrence, if people who have committed this most heinous of crimes are left at large, and not held to account. It is therefore vital that we build and maintain robust judicial systems, both national and international -- so that, over time, people will see there is no impunity for such crimes."

The creation of the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda (ICTR) was one of the first examples of such action by the international community in Africa. It was followed by the establishment of the Special Court in Sierra Leone, which on 3 June began its first trials of individuals accused of crimes against humanity during that country's civil war.

The prosecutors of the ICTR have selected about 200 cases of high-level organizers of the Rwanda genocide for investigation and possible prosecution. Since its first trials began in Arusha, Tanzania, in 1997, and after a number of delays, the ICTR has judged nearly two dozen defendants and a similar number are currently on trial. It hopes to complete all its investigations by the end of this year and to conclude its trials by 2008.

The ICTR was the first court of any kind to hold a former head of government responsible for genocide. It was the first to determine that rape was used as an act of genocide. And it was the first court to find that journalists who incited genocide were themselves guilty of that crime.

The ICTR views its efforts as complementary to those of Rwanda's own courts, including its innovative community-run tribunals known as gacaca. Since their first trials in 2002, hundreds of gacaca have been established, each headed by judges elected by the local communities in which massacres took place. In less than two years they have tried more than 7,000 individuals.

Where national court systems are unable to do so, the new International Criminal Court (ICC) also can deal with crimes against humanity, Mr. Annan noted. Because the jurisdiction of the ICC only began in July 2002, it has so far been preoccupied primarily with setting up its structures and has not yet heard any cases.

However, in late January 2004, the ICC prosecutor, Mr. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, announced preparations for the court's first investigation -- to be conducted in Africa. Specifically, it will examine atrocities committed by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. The LRA insurgency and the government's military campaigns to suppress it have claimed more than 100,000 lives since the late 1980s and displaced some 1.6 million people. The LRA's combatants have become notorious for their victimization of villagers, rapes and the abduction of some 20,000 children, who are used as porters and child soldiers. In February, Mr. Moreno-Ocampo cited an LRA massacre of more than 200 displaced people at a camp in northern Uganda as further reason to investigate the group's crimes.

Beyond providing some measure of justice for the victims of such atrocities, proponents of the ICC, Rwanda tribunal and similar judicial institutions argue that punishing the perpetrators may serve as a deterrent to others contemplating the organization of massacres.

Political will

Better early warning mechanisms, ending impunity and other measures are all important for impeding the road to genocide. However, Mr. Gambari reminded listeners at the Rwanda memorial conference in New York, "The real key is political will to act promptly and decisively." In Rwanda, that will was absent.

General Roméo Dallaire, who headed the UN's small peacekeeping mission in Rwanda at the time of the genocide, noted at the same conference that the international community had been particularly reluctant to act in Africa. The UN force, he said, was a mission without a budget or a structure, but "meanwhile hundreds of millions of dollars were pouring into Yugoslavia." Were some human beings "more human than others?" he asked.

Since the turn of the decade, there have been signs of greater willingness by the major powers to support new peacekeeping missions in Africa. The UN Security Council currently has seven authorized UN peacekeeping missions on the continent -- Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Western Sahara. Another is being planned for southern Sudan.

Some Northern governments also have taken their own initiatives. In 2003, a French-led multinational European force of 1,200 troops was sent to the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo at a time of widespread massacres between the Lendu and Hema ethnic groups. That intervention, known as Operation Artémis, "almost certainly prevented a genocide in Ituri," argue Mr. Gareth Evans and Mr. Stephen Ellis, the president and Africa director, respectively, of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank.

In September 2003, Operation Artémis formally handed over its peacekeeping authority in Ituri to the UN mission, MONUC. In his Geneva address, Secretary-General Annan cited the mission's work in Ituri as an example of the more robust mandates that now guide peacekeeping operations: authorized not only to defend themselves when under attack, but also to protect civilians under threat of imminent violence. Ituri, he noted, is an area "where ethnic conflicts clearly have the potential to escalate into genocide," but today UN peacekeepers "are holding the local militias in check."

'Responsibility to protect'

One effort to generate greater international commitment was a report, "The Responsibility to Protect," which featured prominently at a panel discussion at UN headquarters on the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide. The report was originally issued in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, organized by Canada and co-chaired by Mr. Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister. The other co-chair was Mr. Mohamed Sahnoun, a former Algerian diplomat who has served as UN special representative for the conflicts in Somalia, on the Ethiopia-Eritrea border and in Africa's Great Lakes region.

The commission members, Mr. Sahnoun told the panel, agreed that when states are unwilling or unable to protect their people, the international community should heed its "moral duty" to protect endangered civilians. "Intervention for human protection is justified," he said. Such intervention, he added, should emphasize preventive actions first of all, and only move towards coercive measures when prevention has failed.

Speaking on the same panel, Mr. Lloyd Axworthy, former Canadian foreign minister and currently UN special envoy for the Ethiopia-Eritrea border dispute, noted that some developing countries have expressed concern about concepts such as "humanitarian intervention" or the "responsibility to protect." They view them as justifications for advancing Northern interests. The war in Iraq "has added to these anxieties," Mr. Axworthy observed.

Addressing a similar concern, Mr. Sahnoun argued that international intervention to protect civilians should only be authorized by a "universally accepted authority." To move in that direction, he said, the UN Security Council will need to undergo structural reforms, including a broadening of its membership to make it more representative.

African initiative

There is much that Africa itself can do to prevent genocide, many African commentators have insisted. "We Africans must take concrete steps, even while waiting for help," General Henry Kwami Anyidoho, the deputy commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1994, said at the New York panel discussion.

In Kigali, at a large ceremony in Amahoro Stadium to commemorate the tenth anniversary, Rwandan President Paul Kagame appealed to African countries to strengthen their own national institutions and work together to prevent similar killings, "so that we don't have to rely on external forces. We have to learn to protect each other, for no one owes us anything."

Addressing a memorial meeting at the African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that country's President Girma Wolde-Giorgis pointed to the international community's limited efforts to avert conflicts in Africa as a strong motivation for strengthening the AU's own conflict prevention mechanisms.

Others have emphasized the need for further political reforms within African countries themselves, to avert conflicts that could foster genocide. "If we did not have greedy, corrupt and despotic leaders who choose to cling to power at any cost," argued a columnist for the Financial Gazettenewspaper in Zimbabwe, "most of the conflicts raging in Africa would not arise in the first place."

Mr. Emmanuel Dongola, a novelist who was forced to flee his native Congo Republic during a civil war in the 1990s, urged reducing the ability of politicians to manipulate ethnic identities. "States must be rebuilt by taking the different ethnic groups into account so that no group feels ostracized," he wrote in the New York Times a day before the Rwanda anniversary.

"Transforming the state along these lines will bring security to all citizens," Mr. Dongola continued. "It is this security, more than a museum or commemorative speeches, that will be the greatest homage we can pay to the victims of the Rwanda genocide."

Health Campaign