“Not so much the corpse, but the dress….” Genocide: reliving Rwanda, preventing a repeat

A few months from now, the world will be obliged to remember the Rwanda genocide.

Twenty years ago, come 6 April, an ethnic group began taking shelter in churches and schools, seeking the safety of a pathetic UN peacekeeping force (pathetic as in size and mandate).   The same day, another ethnic group commenced the slaughter.

Five days later, on 11 April at 11.10 am, the Belgian component of the UN force withdrew from the local institutions, on orders from Brussels. Some 3,000 humans left thus exposed, were rounded up by fellow citizens of their nation-state, taken to a garbage dump on the outskirts of Kigali, killed with machetes and light weapons, then bulldozed into a common earth grave.

The slaughter lasted for several months.  Some 800,000 people are estimated to have been killed though that is subject to dispute. It was the fastest act of genocide known to history.

The atrocity was not the spontaneous act of personal rage.  Witnesses recount that the killers would ‘work’ between breakfast and lunch, take a break since it was physically demanding stuff, enjoy their lunch together, return to their handiwork in the afternoon, go home to dinner and family, sleep well, then get up the next morning and repeat the process.  Whether the instrument of death is a machete or gas canister, what effectively becomes a day-job is the product of a plan – a systematic collective action that endures beyond the initial rush of adrenalin.

Rwanda together with Srebenica a year later in Europe represent the two greatest failures of the international community in the modern era – the apparent inability to prevent genocide.  The tragedies gave rise to a new doctrine of international relations that promises to revolutionise the way we think, the way states relate to each other.  The idea of ‘Responsibility to Protect’, not without controversy, is becoming internalised within international diplomacy and domestic politics.

R2P has enjoyed a rough up-bringing. Its parentage was the (French) concept of the ‘right of humanitarian intervention’ – not everybody’s favourite notion (bombing to save lives…). The conceptual-linguistic switch to ‘responsibility to protect’ emerged in response to a call from Kofi Annan: “if the idea of humanitarian intervention is unacceptable on grounds of sovereignty, how are we to respond to the Rwandas and Srebenicas of the future?”  An independent commission of intellectual and political leaders produced R2P in 2001.

It has 3 pillars: first, the (primary) responsibility of a government to protect its people; second the responsibility of the international community to assist; third, if a government is unwilling or unable to protect its citizens (sub-text: commences slaughtering them), the international community has a (secondary) responsibility to intervene, with force if necessary. Five ‘prudential criteria’ are used to make judgements over that intervention.

The challenge, as always, is who decides?  Following the illegal Iraq invasion of ’03, a second commission (‘Threats, Challenges and Change’) recommended adoption of R2P.  I was a consultant to that Commission, and recall the political tension and conceptual nuancing that comprised the ingredients to the final report.  In ’05, the UN General Assembly gave general endorsement to R2P.  The show was on the road.

But when force is at stake, it is the Security Council that calls the shots.  The P-5, especially the US and Russia, have strategic alliances that can get in the way (Syria, Israel). Plus, China, future global leader, remains implacably in the middle of article 2(7) of the Charter that has domestic jurisdiction trumping international responsibility. And when Western powers ‘over-interpret’ a timid R2P mandate (Kosovo ’99; Libya ’11), this ups the ante for bedding the doctrine in positive law.

And so we are left with the mess that is Syria.  And yet Syria is a lot of things but it is not genocide.

Despite all of the above, the R2P doctrine is starting to bed in – see Council resolutions in recent years on Cote d’Ivoire, South Sudan, Yemen, Mali, Central African Republic.  According to the director of the New York-based Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect who is visiting New Zealand, the R2P doctrine has ‘won the battle of ideas’.  The challenge now is to win over political indifference.

Part of that, thinks Dr Simon Adams, is the idea of small member states working for UN reform.  He cites what is called an ACT group (no room for puns here) – states working for Accountability, Coherence and Transparency.  One idea is a voluntary restraint by the P-5 over the non-use of their veto on the four major crimes.  He claims the French are ready to promote this.

Things take time.  I recall proposing exactly that idea that to Gorbachev’s foreign policy adviser, in Moscow in 1989.  He replied, deftly, that under the new leadership anything was possible.  Twenty-five years later, the idea resurfaces.  Its time in fact has come.

And small states should also promote the International Criminal Court – individual accountability under international law is a critical new development.  Some have appointed an R2P official in their governments – Ghana, Denmark, Costa Rica.  New Zealand had also just done so. You might think we were becoming visionary.

For us it is all about our UN Security Council candidacy.  It’s not without passing irony that Foreign Minister McCully is in Addis Ababa about now, talking with the African Union and handing over the AU’s manual, compiled by – guess who? New Zealand.  There is nothing we won’t do, in 2014, to be respected at the UN.

But, in the real world out there, the world of life and death, the prevention of atrocities remains a daunting task.  Only this week, a senior UN official warned that genocide was a ‘real possibility’ in the Central African Republic.  No state, no commission, no leader, no think tank, can devise a critical path of political decision and diplomatic-military action that will dispel the nightmare of mass killings recurring in Africa or Europe.  Let us see what develops there over the coming months, and how the doctrine of R2P plays out.

If genocide is prevented, it will be the most fitting tribute to a young Tutsi woman – who died in her early 20s back in ‘94.  Simon Adams recalls witnessing the exhumation of the mass grave I referred to earlier.  The memory he carries, he says, is not so much the sight of dented skulls and severed limbs, or the smell of decomposed flesh.  It was the dress on this young woman who had just been disinterred.  Her body, what was left, remained enveloped in the dress she was wearing the day she fell to the machete. In the earth, it had remained in perfect and pristine condition, and it shone in the sunlight when she re-emerged to become a witness to atrocity.

We shall get there, one day.  Leaders and their followers will be accountable for atrocities in the future.  It is painstaking stuff – politically fraught, intellectually challenging, morally exhausting.  But we do make progress.

Let’s just make sure first that genocide does not happen in the CAR, in 2014.


1 Comment Posted

  1. Dr Graham please tell us the real reason why the Belgians were ordered to leave?

    A Peacekeeper is only good if they right mandate to the job, the right equipment to the job, the right training, boots on the ground and anything outside of that they are a sitting duck waiting to be killed.

    NZDF lacks equipment to job, the training and boots on ground to effective. We managed to get away with it in East Timor but only just, but NZDF may not be so lucky the next.

    Because you pollies starve us of the funds to do peacekeeping the right way not wrong way and remember the buck stops at you pollies not NZDF as they take their orders from you pollies.

    B.T.W, I’ve just done 3 weeks in South Sudan helping secure the APOD, didn’t see any RNZAF planes oh that’s right the NZDF lack the equipment or was it that 5 50yr old C-130’s keep breaking down because RNZAF weren’t allow to buy 8 new C-130 J’s back 2000 and which two parties were that then???

    P.S The standing joke at work is: “We should send the pollies to war then we would have peace as they bloody well start wars not us”. The other is “we should the peace movement peacekeeping and see how they feel like at getting shot and being able to return fire etc”.

    P.S.S The Greens and Labours Defence Policy is a joke when comes to peacekeeping as they are just words and actions speak louder than words when it comes to Peace Keeping.

    P.S.S.S Dr Graham don’t blame Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire and his Peacekeepers for what happen in Rwanda, I blame your mates at the Useless Nations for what happen in Rwanda. From the sounds of it you haven’t read “Shaken hands with the Devil by Lt Gen Romeo Dallaire” I have.

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