Conflict Trends 2005/4

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda

Book Review

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General Romeo Dallaire has done the peacekeeping community an enormous service by painstakingly reconstructing the events that led to the Rwanda genocide and the international community’s response, or lack thereof, in the days and months that followed. The book is written from his personal experiences and painful memories as commander of the United Nations (UN) forces in Rwanda. He sheds light on the various historic and political events that built up to the genocide, including the broken political process and the apathy of the world as events unfolded in Rwanda. What sets this book apart is the insight General Dallaire provides into the workings of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) and its relationship with the Department of Peacekeeping Operations at the UN headquarters in New York.

The book tries to identify the many things that went wrong in Rwanda, at all levels, and the enormous cost that failure had for the victims of the genocide, as well as for others involved. It is not a comfortable or easy read, but an important one if we want to learn from the mistakes of the past and improve some of the shortcomings of the international system General Dallaire has so painfully and personally experienced.

The core question raised is who should be held responsible for allowing the Rwanda genocide to have occurred? In the first place criminal liability lies with those that have carried out the genocide. Many responsible for planning and executing the genocide have been brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Arusha, Tanzania. Some perpetrators have been sentenced, while some cases are still ongoing. Many thousands of ordinary people who participated in the genocide have also faced trial in Rwanda. The establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague has now institutionalised the tribunals held in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. This should make it easier in future to hold responsible those who commit such atrocious acts.

One can also make a case for the international community to be held morally accountable on the grounds of negligent omission, as evident in the failure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to do everything in its power to prevent or stop the genocide. It is clear, with hindsight, that there was enough information at the time, and that the real problem was the lack of political will by the permanent member countries of the UNSC to act decisively to prevent or stop the genocide. What is really shocking is that those who planned and executed the genocide anticipated the meek and weak reaction from the UNSC. In the wake of the international community’s failure in Somalia it was apparent that if they killed some of the Belgian peacekeepers the most likely result would be the withdrawal of the Belgium Battalion, and the further weakening of the resolve of the UNSC to take assertive action.

It is therefore easy, with hindsight, to blame those in positions of power, but as General Dallaire highlights, and as the UN’s own independently commissioned enquiry into Rwanda has confirmed, the Rwanda genocide was allowed to carry on for 100 days without any meaningful response by the international community because of a series of systemic failures, at all levels, in the UN.

Humanitarian intervention was a hot topic throughout the 1990s. When is it legitimate to intervene? How can we make it less arbitrary? How can we ensure that it would be obligatory in certain cases, such as, genocide, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations, for the UNSC to intervene? The debate culminated in the Canadian Government forming an Internal Commission on Intervention and Sovereignty and the production of a formula known as ‘the Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P. In short, the Commission promoted a shift in emphasis away from the state’s right to sovereignty to a new emphasis on the responsibility of the state to protect its people. Their report argued that if a state looses the will or capacity to protect her people then the obligation shifts to the international community. For a while there was hope that this new formulation could form the basis for a new consensus but the events following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S, and the intense debate around the war on terrorism and the legitimacy of the American-led intervention in Iraq has eroded any consensus that may have existed at the time.

Today, the threshold for international intervention has shifted slightly from the more risk-conscious consensus that held sway in 1994. We would like to think that the international community would, more than ten years after the genocide in Rwanda, be more willing to intervene in such crises than was the case before. Unfortunately, recent events in Monrovia, Bunia and Darfur suggest that we have not necessarily made much progress. The present conflict in Darfur is a stark reminder that we have not yet reached a point where there is a clear understanding of when the UNSC will order an intervention. It is still left in the hands of the permanent members of the Security Council, whose decisions are based on their own national interests.

In 1994 Rwanda did not hold any national interest for any of the permanent members of the UNSC. In fact, the UNSC was pre-occupied with its peacekeeping efforts in Somalia and Bosnia. When the genocide started in Kigali the killing and public maiming of the eighteen U.S. Rangers in the streets of Mogadishu was still fresh in the minds of those making decisions in Washington, D.C. American national interest thus demanded the opposite to what occurred in Somalia, namely that the Administration should prevent exposing their troops to physical danger in situations that did not have clear American interests at stake. Thus when the issue of Rwanda came onto the agenda, Washington D.C. was so risk-averse that its instruction to Madelaine Albright at the UN was to ‘cut and run.’ She protested and argued instead for a small peacekeeping mission to remain. So, whilst General Dallaire was waiting for the cavalry to come riding over the hill, the debate in New York was whether to close down the mission completely, or whether to leave a small token force in place. The only member of the UNSC to pose a convincing argument to the contrary was the Nigerian Permanent Representative who spoke on behalf of the African block.

When the cost of changing the fundamental structure of a system, such as the composition of the Security Council, is too high we tend to shift our focus to technical solutions. It is thus not surprising that most attention has since gone into various proposals and reports aimed at improving the capacity of UN peacekeeping operations. Of these the most prominent was the Brahimi Report that recommended, amongst others, that the UN should not send peacekeepers where there is no peace to keep, and that when peacekeepers are deployed they should be equipped with a mandate and resources that will enable them to deal with all contingencies. As a result, most new peacekeeping operations are deployed with elements of a chapter VII mandate that gives them more authority to use force than was the case before.

However, the fundamental dynamics of peacekeeping has not changed from the essential truths and paradoxes that General Dallaire had to deal with in Rwanda. He highlights that the moment a peacekeeping mission begins using force it loses its impartiality in the eyes of those against whom force is being applied. Once a peacekeeping mission loses its impartiality it also loses its very reason for existence. The complexity of peacekeeping is evident in the paradox that a more robust mandate and peacekeeping force is a very effective deterrent as long as it does not actually have to use the force at its disposal. General Dallaire found himself caught between the reality of a fast changing situation and the limitations of his mandate and resources.

A 1997 Carnegie Commission study on conflict prevention cites the example of Rwanda to make the case for prevention. General Dallaire estimated that a deployment of 5 000 UN troops by April 1994 would have been sufficient to halt the genocide. The Carnegie Commission calculated that a 5 000 strong peacekeeping mission would have cost the international community approximately US$ 500 million per year and the total cost would thus have been in the range of US$ 1.3 million. In the end, the overall assistance to Rwanda in the wake of the genocide had a price tag of approximately US$ 4.5 billion. The need to improve abilities to present cost estimates of this nature to politicians and other decision-makers to convince them of the cost of inaction, is very apparent.

Through his personal story, General Dallaire has contributed enormously to improving our understanding of the limitations of the international system. At the same time he shows how every individual can make a difference, regardless of the larger dynamics that exist. The story of Captain Mbye is especially inspiring. Captain Mbye was an unarmed Military Observer from Senegal who, in defiance of the limitations placed on him by the mandate of the mission, personally saved more than a thousand Rwandans before succumbing in the turmoil himself. There is no statue or memorial for Captain Mbye in Senegal, Rwanda or at the UN Headquarters in New York. Yet, so much more about respect, responsibilities, courage and honour lives on through his story and others, as told by General Dallaire.

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