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Africa

Opinion: The international community failed in Rwanda

Rwanda is mourning the 800,000 victims of the genocide 20 years ago. The international community, which failed disastrously at the time, has only halfheartedly acted on the lessons from this failure, says Andrea Schmidt.

It should never have happened: a genocide right in front of the eyes of the international community! Even babies, children and elderly people were massacred. Militias set fire to places of worship, where people had sought sanctuary. In 100 days the Rwandan regime at the time, along with its militias, murdered over 800,000 people. They targeted Tutsis, but also politically moderate Hutus and those who tried to help their neighbors and friends.

Why did no one heed the early warnings? As early as January 11, 1994, almost three months before the killings began, the commander of the UN force in Ruanda (UNAMIR), Romeo Dallaire, had sent a message to his superiors in New York. In the so-called "genocide fax," Dallaire warned that he had received information on the existence of detailed plans for massacres. According to his informant, militiamen in teams of 40 people were capable of killing over 1,000 people in 20 minutes.

After the genocide had begun, Dallaire sent desperate appeals to UN headquarters for more peacekeepers and a robust peacekeeping mandate, in order to be able to protect the population. Instead, the UN reduced the number of peacekeepers. Presumably out of fear of another disaster like the failed intervention in Somalia, they looked the other way and did not want to believe that such atrocities were happening.

A new responsibility to protect

Meanwhile France still delivered weapons to the regime in Rwanda until June. Instead of protecting the civilian population with its military intervention called "Operation Turquoise," the French military even enabled the perpetrators of the genocide to retreat to what was then Zaire, taking the weapons with them.

Above all, it was the UN that failed miserably. But what have they learned from it? In reaction to the fiasco in Rwanda, the UN developed a new system in 2005, with their Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative. It obliges states to protect their population from grave human rights violations, genocide and ethnic cleansing. If a state does not fulfill its responsibility to protect, the international community can assume this responsibility and intervene militarily.

But the noble principle in itself is not enough. In 2009, during the civil war in Sri Lanka, the UN did not prevent the killing of about 40,000 civilians there. There are also armed conflicts today that challenge the international community to prove it has learned from Rwanda, such as the killings going on in Central African Republic or the catastrophic situation in South Sudan.

Why are UN missions still not furnished with a robust mandate on principle? In addition, it is important to detect signs of such violent excesses early on. Relevant indicators must be determined to help avoid such an escalation of violence. Peacekeepers must be well-trained, well-equipped and suitably prepared in order to be able to react in an efficient and responsible way.

Congo as an example

The UN force in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) serves as an example both for the problems of peacekeeping missions as well as possible solutions. For years the UN troops there were criticized for their inefficiency, and the population positively loathed them. Lacking a robust mandate, they had looked the other way all too often, when people were killed and women raped. But in 2013, with a new intervention brigade consisting of African soldiers and with a new mandate, this changed.

Above all, peacekeeping missions should not be allowed to fail because of a lack of funds and resources. The international community must irrevocably pledge to help quickly, efficiently and exclusively to protect human rights in the country concerned. An intervention for other political or for economic reasons must be ruled out.

In 1994 the international community made a fatal mistake. It must never again look the other way when such terrible crimes are committed. During the genocide in Rwanda, 800,000 people lost their lives. As a consequence of the genocide, another 3 million people died in the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. That, too, must not be forgotten.

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