Twenty years ago on April 6, the world witnessed the horrendous genocide in Rwanda, in which approximately 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were massacred over a period of 100 days. Rwanda victims have allies, but most of the world was a bystander, watching while the genocide took place. Today marks the 20-year anniversary of the beginning of that Genocide in 1994. It is time to look back at who stood with the victims and who merely observed or even obstructed justice.
The failure of the United Nations and the U.S. to act during the Genocide still leaves a deep mark on history. The U.N. was formed at the end of World War II, with the intention of ushering in a new era of justice and world peace. However, the promises made after the genocide of the Holocaust were not carried out during the Rwanda Genocide. At the time when additional troops and aid workers should have been provided in Rwanda, the U.S. and the U.N. made their exit.
Rwanda was under colonial rule by the Germans from 1894 until their defeat in World War I, and then colonized by the Belgians until 1961. Rwanda’s independence in 1962 was fraught with conflict as the Tutsis and the Hutus fought for power. In 1990 the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda, starting a three-year civil war. The 1993 Arusha Accords allowed government positions for both Tutsis and Hutus. The Genocide began in 1994, immediately after the death of the totalitarian Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, after the Hutus blamed the Tutsis for his assassination. While Habyarimana was in power, France had close diplomatic and military ties with the Hutu-led government.
The entire Genocide took place over more than three months. After six weeks of slaughter and the deaths of 75,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers, the French set up a safe zone in the Southwest of Rwanda. When looking at the 20-year anniversary, the role of allies is still questioned. How soon and under what circumstances is appropriate for intervention? If there is a delay in assistance during an emergency, does that make another nation an ally or a bystander?
On Monday Rwanda will hold an international commemoration of the 1994 Genocide. It has invited leaders from world nations, including France and Belgium. In a recent statement, Rwanda President Paul Kagame spoke about the role of Belgium and France in the prelude to the Genocide, and held France directly responsible for the actual events by their support of the ethnic Hutu militias. This view has been corroborated by Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, who said that if France requires Rwanda’s intentional disregard of history in order to have good relations, accord between the two countries will remain at an impasse.
Prior to this statement, France had been planning to attend the memorial event in the Rwanda capital of Kigali. Paris bristled at the change in tone from the reconciliation process that had been ongoing and decided to withdraw its delegation from attendance at the commemoration.
Belgium did not have the same reaction as France. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said he understood France’s reaction, but that it is “not the same for Belgium.” The Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo talked about the importance of learning from past errors and spoke of holding accountable those who were responsible for the Rwanda Genocide.
The response of the United Nations was to issue a statement. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to learn from its past mistakes. He specifically cited international failure to intervene in and halt the Rwanda Genocide. He spoke of the need to not only speak, but also to dedicate resources and actually prevent atrocity crimes.
This Monday Rwanda begins its commemoration the 1994 Genocide and a National Flame of Mourning will burn for 100 days. At the 20-year anniversary of the atrocity, allies and bystanders alike are also in the spotlight. Time mends old hurts. It helps, however, for those who have caused the hurt to acknowledge it and to reach out in reconciliation.
By Fern Remedi-Brown