January 27th marked International Holocaust Day – a day to reflect upon the terrible lessons from the past so that previous atrocities can be remembered and, hopefully, never repeated. Naturally, on this most sombre of days many will think of the murder of millions of European Jews who were exterminated by the wickedness of the Third Reich’s ‘Endlösung der Judenfrage’ (final solution to the Jewish question). Unfortunately, we need not look as far back as the Nazi death camps of the 1940s to see an example of genocide in recent history. April 7th of this year will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. With conflict raging in the Central African Republic (CAR) as well as other global flashpoints, despotic regimes and geopolitically unstable nations are all raising the possibility of genocide today, what lessons have been learned two decades on to prevent the grim spectre of genocide returning?
The Rwandan genocide was sparked by the assassinations of the President Juvénal Habyarimana and the Burundi President Cyorien Ntaryamira when their aircraft was shot down. Tutsi rebels were blamed for the attack (a claim later proven to be erroneous by both a Rwandan and a later French investigation into the assassinations). This claim was enough to incite over three months of bloody genocide against the minority Tutsi population of Rwanda by the Hutu majority, moderate Hutus were also killed being branded as ‘traitors’. It was a time of extreme brutality punctuated by massacres in schools, hospitals and churches but also rape, mutilation and HIV/AIDs (were) being used as a weapons of war. The genocide eventually ended when the Tutsi RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) took possession of Kigali resulting in the government collapsing and the RPF declaring a ceasefire.
One of the most shocking aspects of the genocide in Rwanda was the failings of the United Nations (UN) both in the prevention of the initial violence and the failure to stop the genocide when it was underway. During the genocide, the UN forces were mostly withdrawn from the country following the mutilation and murder of Belgian UN peacekeepers during early clashes with Hutu extremists. This withdrawal emboldened the Hutu extremists and endangered the lives of many Tutsi people, who had fled to the protection of the UN bases in the country, when hostilities flared.
The UN was already present in the country as part of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to help to mediate a transition for the nation following the Rwandan Civil War. However, factors both inside Rwanda and internationally hindered the UN response to the crisis, the slow reaction and incredulity of many nations added to the lack of a robust and strong international response. The fact that Rwanda was a non-permanent member of the Security Council at the time of the genocide also did little to help the situation.
These flaws in the operations of the UN and the Security Council along with other insufficiencies were highlighted in an independent inquiry into the actions of the UN at the time of the Rwandan genocide; this report resulted in the explicit acceptance by the Security Council for failing to prevent the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. The Security Council did not go as far as to issue a full apology to the people of Rwanda but instead they wanted to focus upon learning the lessons from the genocide and to act more effectively in the future.
What of the present day – what have been the lessons learned by the UN following its bruising experience in Rwanda which will aid it in preventing genocide in the world today? Currently, there are several trouble spots where genocide and crimes against humanity are happening. According to the Genocide Watch: The International Alliance to End Genocide website there are five ‘Genocide Emergencies’ declared meaning in these places a genocide is currently occurring. The genocide emergencies are in Syria, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia and Burma/Myanmar. Furthermore, the UN has begun an investigation into the situation in CAR as it risks spiralling into a state of genocide. All of these situations are deplorable and seemingly intractable. In addition these situations are very fluid where developments occur so rapidly that it may be difficult to quickly implement a solution – even for an organisation as powerful as the UN.
All of the work done by the UN requires diplomacy and tact. However, during a time of great humanitarian crisis or genocide it seems policy makers do not operate quickly enough. These conflicts are in the most part obscured from the wider world’s consciousness – apart from news reports – we know rather little about these situations and their complexities. We need to come together and make it our duty to educate ourselves and others about these crises around the world, and hold our leaders to account for knowing about these humanitarian crises. But also there needs to be a better understanding of what can be done to end the suffering of others and how to work with other nations and peoples to make this possible change seem a tangible dream.
The UN can only do so much to help the victims of genocide. What is also required is a more widespread awareness so that we can take action. There is an old Latin phrase ‘homo homini lupus est’ roughly translated this means that man is a wolf onto other men – it is everyone’s responsibility to strive to transcend our basic wicked instincts toward one another. We cannot bury our heads in the sand, and ignore the plight of the victims of genocide lest they die a second death born of our ignorance.