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HUMANITARIAN: A Decade After Rwanda

Author: Esther Pan
April 1, 2004

What lessons have been learned since the Rwanda genocide?

Most experts agree that the slow and reluctant international reaction to the violent upheaval in Rwanda 10 years ago dramatically illustrated the need for guidelines to govern how and when nations can act to prevent a humanitarian crisis in another country. Beginning in April 1994, some 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their countrymen and more than 2 million refugees fled the small African nation. "After the Holocaust, we said we'd never let it happen again. And lo and behold, we did," says JosephSiegle, the Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. While sentiment in the decade since has shifted toward a consensus on the right of civilians to be protected either from their own governments (for example, Serb aggression against Kosovars) or their fellow citizens (as in Rwanda), effective mechanisms to prevent genocide are still lacking.

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How did the international community respond to Rwanda?

Some of the first victims of the violence were 10 Belgian members of a U.N. peacekeeping force acting as bodyguards for the Rwandan prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who was also killed. Immediately after, Belgium withdrew its peacekeepers, a cornerstone of the 2,800-member United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), that was enforcing a 1993 agreement meant to end a civil war between the Hutu government and the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front. As the killing gathered pace, most of UNAMIR withdrew. A force of several hundred UNAMIR members led by Major General Romeo Dallaire stayed on voluntarily but were unable to stem the violence. Western nations, including France, the United States, Britain, and Italy, evacuated their citizens and embassies, leaving local employees behind.

Was there an existing international agreement intended to prevent genocide?

Yes. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in 1948. It says, "The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish." The convention states that any country may call upon the "effective organs of the United Nations" to take action to prevent genocide, and that those accused of genocide will be tried by tribunals and subject to undefined "effective penalties."

Why was no action taken under the terms of the convention?

Countries and the United Nations avoided referring to events in Rwanda as genocide, experts say. The United States, for example, ratified the genocide convention in 1988. But the Clinton administration, still smarting from the deaths of 18 U.S. peacekeepers in Somalia in 1993, was wary of foreign entanglements. It "worked very hard never to use the word 'genocide' about Rwanda, even though everyone knew that's what it was," Siegle says. As a result, "A precedent was set that severed the obligation to act under the genocide convention," says Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda." The convention, he says, "relatively toothless."

Did the killing in Rwanda amount to genocide?

Yes. The convention defines genocide as acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," including killing, removing, starving or preventing births in that group. In Rwanda, organized militias known as Interahamwe began a campaign to eliminate all members of the minority Tutsi group, some 15 percent of the country's population. The militias also targeted moderates of the majority Hutu group who opposed the genocide.

What are the legal issues involved in the debate over intervention to prevent genocide?

Experts say the main issue is balancing the sovereignty of nations against the duty to protect civilians. As a result of Rwanda, "there's been much, much more attention paid to the limits of sovereignty and the rights of the international community to intervene when gross violations of human rights are being committed and the state is either complicit or incapable of stopping it," says Princeton Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow in Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria.

The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, in a report done for the United Nations and published in December 2001, posits a new norm of "sovereignty as responsibility" that says that "when states are unable or unwilling to protect their populations from mass atrocities, or when a state is itself the perpetrator, the international community has a responsibility to act."

What international initiatives came out of the Rwanda experience?

Experts say the use of international criminal tribunals to try suspected war criminals gained momentum after Rwanda, citing theYugoslavia and Rwanda criminal tribunals, and theSierra Leone special court, a tribunal set up jointly by the United Nations and the Sierra Leone government to try suspected war criminals. "The Rwanda experience was a major motivator for getting countries to sign on [to the tribunals]," Siegle says. But many experts say that, while tribunals punish criminals, it's unclear that they deter crimes.

Has the international community apologized for allowing the genocide to happen?

Yes. In a March 1998 speech in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton apologized for the international community's failure to react, saying, "We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide." A 1999 independentinquirycommissioned by the United Nations found that UNAMIR was neither mandated nor equipped to prevent the genocide, and "the overriding failure in the international community's response was the lack of resources and political will, as well as errors of judgment as to the nature of events in Rwanda." It went on to say, "This international responsibility is one which warrants a clear apology by the [United Nations] and by the member states concerned to the Rwandese people." U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was head of U.N. peacekeeping in 1994, expressed "deep regret" over the findings of the report, and recently repeated an apology for the United Nations' role. "The international community failed Rwanda, and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow," he said in a speech March 26, 2004. "The international community is guilty of sins of omission."

What steps have been taken to try to prevent genocide in the future?

Experts say the biggest problem is political will. The political costs to governments of intervening often outweigh the benefits of responding. "Member states are not willing to commit resources in places where the question of national interest is not clear," says Roberta Cohen, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution and co-director of The Brookings-SAIS Project on Internal Displacement. Even after Rwanda, Lyman says, "we still can't be sure that we would intervene in time [in conflict situations], especially in a country that's not central to the world's attention."

What's been proposed at the United Nations?

A U.N. report in 2000 recommended broad reforms to U.N. peacekeeping operations and peace-building programs, which are often at the front lines of the worst conflict situations. The report recommended more realistic mandates for U.N. peacekeeping forces, including granting them authority to use their own discretion to stop violence. "No failure did more to damage the standing and credibility of United Nations peacekeeping in the 1990s than its reluctance to distinguish victim from aggressor," it said. The 1999 inquiry found that UNAMIR's mission was not planned nor were its troops deployed or instructed in ways that would have stopped the genocide.

Despite the report, experts say, the United Nations has not changed how it conducts peacekeeping operations. Lyman points to the recent operation in the Congo. The U.N. Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in late 1999 and early 2000, went in with 5,500 members to a country the size of western Europe. When massacres began in the country's north, the force was too small to stop them. European and South African troops were rushed in, and the U.N. force was eventually expanded to 15,000 soldiers, but only after hundreds of Congolese had been killed. Experts say this fits a U.N. pattern of trying to send in small forces--because member states are reluctant to spend the money for bigger ones--and then, only after disaster strikes, dispatching more soldiers. "How many people have to die before there's action?" Cohen asks.

What can the international community do to respond more effectively in the future?

Some experts suggest the following sequence of steps:

  • An internationally respected figure would be authorized to identify an event as genocide, with the attendant responsibilities to intervene.
  • A coordinated obligation to respond would be recognized. Siegle proposes that if the U.N. secretary-general declares events amount to genocide, all members of the Security Council--and countries in the region of the conflict--would be obliged to commit troops and funds. If they know the burden will be shared, Siegle says, countries like the United States would be more likely to participate.
  • A standing U.N. force of some 5,000 soldiers would be established, ready to mobilize to international trouble spots and stop internal violence. "It might cost a few hundred million dollars annually, but that might be a bargain compared with the cost [in lives and money] of a conflict later," Cohen says.
  • The standing force would transition to an ongoing U.N. peacekeeping operation as quickly as possible.
Has the international community exhibited more political will to intervene in conflicts after Rwanda?

Sometimes. Experts point to several recent actions--the British in Sierra Leone; the French in the Ivory Coast; and France, the United States, and Canada in Haiti--as signs that there may be increased willingness to step into conflict situations. But "it's very ad hoc and always at the last minute, they're scrambling to re-invent the wheel," Cohen says. Howard Wolpe, Africa program director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says citizens and advocacy groups have to build a new consensus to push their governments to intervene to save civilian lives in these situations. Wolpe is leading the Remembering Rwanda project, a months-long series of events to commemorate the genocide.