Ten years ago, the world’s governments stood by and watched as an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda were massacred in the space of a hundred days.

International Herald Tribune Op-Ed by David Bryer April 14, 2004

Ten years ago, the world’s governments stood by and watched as an estimated 800,000 people in Rwanda were massacred in the space of a hundred days. Aid agencies saw what was happening, but it was in vain that we lobbied to persuade Western governments to fulfill their obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention and intervene to stop the killing.

With the number of deaths rising daily, we pressed for an urgent reinforcement of the tiny and helpless United Nations force in Kigali. But UN Security Council members would not commit their own troops. Nor would they deliver the necessary logistical support to the African nations that had offered manpower. Such callous disregard in the face of such immense suffering still haunts me; it was certainly the lowest point in my 30 years as a humanitarian worker.

Many others shared this sickening sense of failure. General Roméo Dallaire, the deeply committed commander of the ill-fated UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, wrote that, as long as Security Council members “procrastinated, bickered and cynically pursued their own selfish foreign policies”, his men could do little to stop the killing.

Ten years on, it is sobering to reflect on what has changed. If genocide were looming today, would there be a speedier and more united response? Just as importantly, how is the world responding today to appalling and widespread attacks on innocent men, women and children? In short, is there any hope for an internationally agreed policy of intervention to protect civilians that would transcend “selfish foreign policies”?

At first sight, the signs are not auspicious. The “War on Terror” and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have consumed international agendas and resources. The controversy over US and allied action in Iraq has muddied the debate on when and how it is acceptable to intervene in a sovereign country to protect civilians, in effect rendering all forms of intervention open to accusations of aggressive neo-colonialism.

And yet the question is as urgent and fundamental as ever. While there may not have been systematic killings on the scale of the Rwandan genocide since 1994, armed conflicts and massive violations of human rights continue, with hundreds of thousands of people killed, raped or terrorized every year. These rarely make the headlines, but for many people in conflict zones or insecure regions in Sudan, northern Uganda, Aceh or Colombia, terror is an all too everyday experience.

Ten years after Rwanda, the world must re-apply itself to this most fundamental question. We urgently need an agreement among governments on clear principles to guide when the Security Council should act to protect civilians around the world. Military intervention should always be the last resort when all other avenues have been tried and have failed. The Canadian-backed report, “Responsibility to Protect”, published in December 2001 lays out just such a framework. It argues that where a population is facing large-scale killings, which the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt, then the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect civilians.

On a more practical level, we need to see the provision of forces and resources on the ground that were so tragically lacking in Rwanda. Throughout the three months of slaughter, from April to June 1994, there were ample opportunities for a relatively small, well-trained force to intervene and stop genocide in its tracks. There were many proposals – not least from US General Wesley Clark who presented a plan for a small intervention force to establish corridors of escape.

Today there are at least some signs of progress – even in Africa. In June last year, a European force of almost 2000 troops flew into the Ituri province of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and was able at least to contain the vicious ethnic conflict there. Although it was unable to secure the region as a whole, it stopped the worst of the bloodshed in and around the main town of Bunia – and many of the arms shipments that were fueling the violence.

And in Liberia last August, troops from several West African countries received a rapturous reception as they arrived in Monrovia, bringing to an end 14 years of civil war and untold misery. This West African peacekeeping force was soon subsumed into a UN operation which, if it finally reaches its target of 15,000 troops, may shortly become the world’s largest ever UN peacekeeping force

As Kofi Annan lamented in a speech last September, the Security Council still responds to violence in a way that is “tardy and hesitant.” But recent interventions in Africa highlight a growing willingness – by both African and western nations – to intervene to protect civilians. In March of this year, the African Union agreed to set up a force of 15,000 troops, to be ready in 2005, to intervene to prevent genocide or end armed conflicts. This is a hugely welcome development that should be supported.

The European Union is also working on a similar idea, coalescing around a UK-French-German plan for a rapid reaction force to move quickly into conflict zones to fill the gap until UN peacekeepers can arrive. This idea is due to be discussed again on April 5th-6th at a meeting of European defense ministers in Brussels.

These are crucial developments that would provide some practical tools to prevent genocide and other atrocities against civilians. Kofi Annan has also proposed a UN Special Rapporteur on the Prevention of Genocide, reporting directly to the Security Council. In theory this should make it more difficult for the Council to look the other way as it did in 1994. But in the last resort there is nothing, to prevent another genocide, unless the Security Council has the will to do so, and the world’s powerful governments put in the energy and resources which were so tragically lacking, even after a Security Council resolution, in 1994.
The tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide will be a painful moment for millions, especially the Rwandan survivors still trying to heal their shattered lives. We owe it to them, and to those who died, to ensure that the cry of “never again!” so easily and regularly uttered in the aftermath of such horrors, does at last mean what it says.

David Bryer was Director of Oxfam Great Britain from 1992-2001. He is currently Chair of Oxfam International.


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