The only way to truly honour the memory of those who perished in Rwanda is to ensure such events can never occur again.
Eighteen years ago, in what came to be known as the 100-day Rwanda genocide, nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in Rwanda. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a message issued on the occasion of last year’s commemoration, emphasized that “Rwanda’s survivors have made us confront the ugly reality of a preventable tragedy.”
The ‘preventable tragedy’ Mr Ban Ki-Moon referred to was the stark reality that on 7 April, 1994 the international community stood on the side-lines as death began to descend on Rwanda. The perpetrators were Rwandan armed forces and extremist Hutu militias who went on a killing spree after the assassination of the then president, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu. As the international community shuffled paperwork, bickered over roles and wrote press releases to condemn the killings, the world quietly witnessed the ugly reality of the Rwanda genocide.
As the Rwandan Armed Forces and their trained militias set up roadblocks and went from house to house killing Tutsis and moderate Hutu politicians, the UN soldiers, generally speaking, not to breach their ‘monitoring’ mandate, failed to protect Rwandans while they were being butchered. Of course, there were a few UN run safe-places, like the Amahoro Stadium, where Tutsi refugees sought shelter. In fact, the UN soldiers withdrew from posts where they were protecting large numbers of civilians to Kigali airport to secure safe exit for foreign nationals. In a few days the UN pulled out the majority of its forces even as the International Red Cross (ICRC) announced the deaths of over 100,000 Rwandans. The major concern of the French, Belgian and American governments was also to rescue their civilians while the IRC and other human rights groups were making repeated calls concerning the carnage. Actually, Belgium, the former colonial power that introduced ‘identity card ’ politics that heftily contributed to the division of the ethnic groups during earlier years, withdrew its troops from the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda.
During the first few weeks of genocide tens of thousands of Rwandans fled into neighbouring Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire while the UN was still contemplating whether an act of genocide had been committed in Rwanda.
If there is anything worse than the genocide itself, it is the knowledge that it did not have to happen. The simple, harsh, truth is that the genocide was not inevitable; and that it would have been relatively easy to stop it from happening prior to April 6, 1994, and then to mitigate the destruction significantly once it began.
—Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide – International panel of eminent personalities OAU commissioned Report (Chapter 10.1)
It is true that an international panel investigating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda issued its findings, placing the brunt of the blame on the United Nations Security Council, the United States, France and Belgium for their failure to stop the bloodshed. Where was the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) when Rwandans needed them the most? It is to be remembered that the OAU, which was set up in 1963, drew criticism throughout the 1990s for lack of its intervention as crises unfolded in Rwanda.
The OAU’s cumbersome structure and a Charter that categorically stressed the importance of the sovereignty of member states and non-interference in their internal affairs, was partly to blame for its failure to prevent the Rwanda genocide despite its key role in the political and military negotiations in the years preceding it. Since October 1990 the OAU became involved in the Rwandan crisis. However, the numerous consultations, meetings and summits that were held since then within the OAU structure failed to resolve the gnawing problem in Rwanda. Besides, the famous 1992 Arusha cease-fire agreement (1), an arrangement to stop the conflict and open a political dialogue, an attempt which employed the wisdom of major African players failed to materialise. Due to the complexity of the problem in the region and discord among regional players, even the conflict mechanism the OAU had instigated in 1993 was not adequate enough to stop the bloodshed in Rwanda. When the Rwandan government was finally pressured into subscribing to an agreement of power-sharing the deal did not go down well with the Hutu military leaders who could not fathom the Tutsis assuming virtual parity on government matters. The OAU, realising it was not in a position to implement the Arusha peace accord, turned to the UN to play a peacekeeper role in Rwanda. The African leaders either naively or perhaps wrongly thought the UN would deliver on its promises to oversee the operational side of peacekeeping. By that time the OAU and other players knew very what was happening in Rwanda – arms were fast proliferating and a militia-based Hutu power house was under construction. It suffices to state that the OAU was aware of the brewing problems and misjudged the friction was going to lead to conflicts of colossal proportions – that the Tutsis were going to face ‘the Final Solution’.
These efforts culminated in a last-ditch effort to avert conflict with a regional summit in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Habyarimana, the Rwandan president, after attending the summit, headed home with another promise to implement the peace accord. But this time he flew home to his death – a death that ushered in the Rwanda Genocide. And of course, the rest is history. Unfortunately, the aftermath turned into a blame-game while the effects of the carnage produced more refugees. Approximately two million Hutus, participants in the genocide, and the bystanders, with anticipation of Tutsi retaliation, fled to neighbouring countries. Life in Rwanda turned into utter chaos. Thousands of refugees died in epidemics of diseases common to the squalor of refugee camps in Zaire.
The tragedy that occurred in Rwanda is hard to imagine. The eerie and numbing scene was filled with so many strewn rotting corpses, mutilated mothers, hacked children, dying refugees, detached limbs and machete-stricken zombies. Former President Clinton later stated that the ‘biggest regret’ of his presidency was for the failure not to act decisively to stop the Rwandan Genocide. There is no question the collective blame rests on the shoulders of those who knew what was happening and those who were in the position to avert the situation.
The OAU, weighed down with various problems, bureaucracy, and the constraints in dealing with the policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, failed to prevent conflicts, stop genocides or challenge dictators. The OAU, in an unprecedented move, established a panel whose mandate was to establish the facts of what happened in Rwanda. Although the OAU Panel did not have any judicial role, it identified the causes and consequences of the genocide. The panel’s report concluded that the tragedy was preventable.
The Rwanda genocide was one of the biggest catalysts that prompted the transformation of the OAU. In 2002 the African Union (AU) replaced the OAU. The transformation not only did include fostering unity and solidarity between African countries, accelerating political and socio-economic integration, and promoting peace, security, democracy but also human rights and genocide were placed higher in its design. Accordingly, the mandate of the African Union became much more proactive than that of its predecessor with regards to intervention in internal conflicts.
The formation of the AU was an important moment in its history. First of all the successes and failures of the OAU were recognised by the founders of the AU. The OAU achieved some success in resolving crises between African states; however, it did not have the mechanisms to resolve civil wars. Secondly, the institutional changes were made to overcome OAU’s constraints. On the whole, OAU’s resolutions were not implemented at the country level. Member states understood the basis of the paralysis, not to intervene in member states ‘internal’ affairs. In its current structure the AU can now address and act on issues to do with, for instance, conflicts and genocide.
Now is the time the AU puts its policies to practice. One of the positive and most impressive steps the AU took recently is to build a memorial for victims of past conflicts in Africa which include the Rwanda genocide, the Ethiopian Red Terror, Apartheid, slave-trade and colonialism. The project is called the African Union Human Rights Memorial (AUHRM) project. It has set the AUHRM work in motion by planting a foundation stone for the memorial in front of the new AU building which was inaugurated on 28 January 2012. The inscription on the Foundation Stone reads:
For all the victims of human rights abuses in Africa, including those of the slave trade and colonialism, and particularly the genocide in Rwanda (1994), the Alem Bekagn prison massacres (1937 & 1974), the Red Terror (1977-78) in Ethiopia and Apartheid in South Africa.
Unveiled on the occasion of the commissioning of the AU conference and office complex, 18th summit of heads of state and government.
–Addis Ababa, 28 January 2012
Why does the AU need a memorial? The AUHRM signifies the fact that Africa now will have to face up to its violent history. During the 18th commemoration of the Rwanda genocide which was held at the AU, Dr Jean Ping, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, summarised the need for a memorial by stating that ‘the annual commemoration is an occasion for us to reiterate our commitment to ensure that no more genocide occurs in Africa, now or in the future’. He stated that Africa was stunned by the Rwanda genocide. He also punctuated the fact that the whole world was stunned at this show of savagery. Admittedly, he said ‘there was guilt not only on the perpetrators but also on all of us who stood by and did nothing’.
The 18th commemorative event, which was attended by member states, AU organs, national human rights institutions, intergovernmental organizations, civil society organizations and members of the AUHRM project, was organised by the Department of Political Affairs of the AUC, in collaboration with the authorities of the Rwanda Government under the theme ‘Learning from our history to build a bright future’. The main purpose was ‘to continuously awaken greater awareness of the African peoples and the international community about the value of life and humanity, and to help Africans renew their collective commitment to protect and uphold the fundamental human rights.’
Through this project the gates of memory are now open. Promises are made, plans are set in motion and one can safely imagine that the AU is set on the right course with the project. During the ceremony, Prof Andrias Eshete, the chairperson of the interim board of AUHRM project, delivered a short but poignant message that we all have the duty to remember the ugly past. The world will be watching as Africa, through the AU, strives to preserve its unity and restore the dignity of those whose lives were unnecessarily wasted in Rwanda and elsewhere. The Never Again campaign will truly mean something once the promised Human Rights Memorial stands facing the freshly inaugurated building of the AU complex.
(1) The cease-fire accord was signed on 12 July 1992, in Arusha, Tanzania, fixing a timetable for an end to the fighting and political talks, leading to a peace accord and power sharing, and authorizing a neutral military observer group under the auspices of the Organization for African Unity. The cease-fire took effect on 31 July 1992, and political talks began on 30 September 1992.
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