The UN and Rwanda

Linda Melvern

The architects of the United Nations set out to create the most ambitious system of collective security ever attempted. To this end, the Security Council was given unprecedented power. Its five permanent members would be the world’s policemen; they would fulfil the UN’s central purpose of maintaining peace and security. Troops would be at their disposal since, without the ability to enforce it, there was no point to international law. The alternative was anarchy. After the Cold War there was talk of a UN renaissance, and of a united Security Council ensuring the primacy of the UN’s role in a New World Order. It has not worked out like that. In the course of four years and three international disasters – Somalia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Rwanda – the Council has proved that with a patchwork command structure, as unstable as it is dangerous, it is not an effective instrument for collective security.

Rwanda was in many ways the most formidable and the most ignominious episode for the Council. Its repercussions have been obvious in eastern Zaire, where recent events provoked a flurry of international indecision over the dispatch of troops on a ‘humanitarian’ mission that seemed to evaporate as Rwandese and Zairean rebel troops took it on themselves to settle the political and military legacy of the 1994 catastrophe. The details of that catastrophe were already familiar before the turmoil in Zaire and the Hutu migration back to Rwanda. The response of the international community at the time, however, particularly in the nations with permanent membership of the Security Council, but also in other influential countries, in the Council itself and the UN Secretariat, is less well known.

Every country that is a member of the UN – i.e. every country – is legally obliged under the convention adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in 1948 to intervene in any situation where genocide is intended. That a genocide took place in Rwanda in 1994 is now generally accepted, though the British Government prefers not to speak about it. When last year the Foreign Office was asked to respond to enquiries for an OECD assessment on Rwanda, it dismissed any discussion of whether or not genocide had taken place as ‘sterile’. Most Western governments had much the same attitude.

First colonised by Germany, Rwanda was taken over by Belgium as a spoil of World War One. It was a highly organised monarchy with a small Tutsi aristocracy and a large Hutu peasant majority. The Belgians found it politic to exacerbate the animosity between the two groups. In 1959, the Hutu, following decades of deepening resentment, massacred tens of thousands of Tutsi. And when Rwanda secured independence in 1962, the Hutu Government operated a policy of apartheid: discriminated against in education and employment, thousands of Tutsi left the country.

By the end of the Eighties nearly half a million Rwandese were in exile and the refugee question became central to the region’s stability. The President of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, denied them the right to return, arguing that Rwanda was already the second most densely populated country in the world. Under the auspices of the OAU an agreement was reached on repatriation, but before it could be implemented Rwanda was invaded from Uganda by the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), comprising exiled Tutsi and the pro-democracy Hutu opposition. The invasion demonstrated the RPF’s potential military superiority. With help from the French, the Rwandese government forces repelled the attack, but the invasion served to encourage opposition to one-party rule, while the RPF continued to mount attacks from territory it held inside Rwanda and along the Ugandan border. The Government began to build up its military strength – the size of the Army increased from four thousand to fifty thousand in the space of a few months – and local militias were created. The Tutsi inside Rwanda were held collectively responsible for the invasion; opponents of the Government were regularly beaten up and individual Tutsi murdered. In June 1992, the Habyarimana Government was persuaded to sign an agreement with the RPF, and marathon negotiations resulted in the Arusha Peace Agreement of August 1993, under which the regime would finally accede to multi-party rule, and provision would be made for an end to the division of Rwandese society.

Sponsored by five African states (Burundi, Zaire, Senegal, Uganda and Tanzania) and four Western nations (France, Belgium, Germany and the US), the Arusha Agreement was initiated and led by the OAU, but was predicated on a UN presence to oversee the transition to democracy. After the disasters of Bosnia and Somalia, Boutros Boutros Ghali was desperate for a successful mission, and his staff in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations had come to believe that they might be able to act effectively in Rwanda.

France was particularly enthusiastic about UN involvement, wanting to salvage its interest in Rwanda by promoting a negotiated settlement on terms favourable to the existing, friendly, regime. The French Government hoped that the UN troops would provide a buffer against the RPF and thereby help to avert any possible ‘take-over’ of Rwanda by Tutsi.

Looking back, some ambassadors from the non-permanent member-states on the Security Council felt they had been boxed in over the decision. More careful consideration should have been given to the terms of the Arusha Agreement and what was expected of the peacekeepers, as well as to the needs and realities on the ground. Finance was crucial. With Congress increasingly unwilling to support UN peacekeeping, the cost of which had trebled since the end of the Cold War, the Americans were asked to pay 31 per cent of the bill. Unamir, the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, was therefore set up in such a way as to satisfy a highly costconscious Congress. From the moment the troops arrived in Rwanda, they lacked essentials. The Canadian force commander, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, was reduced to borrowing petty cash from other UN agencies; and even then he hadn’t enough ammunition, no sandbags, hardly any fuel, no barbed wire and no helicopters. He had one working armoured personnel-carrier.

Three months into his mandate, Dallaire warned UN headquarters of the likelihood of a resumption of civil war in Rwanda, having been told by an informer that President Habyarimana no longer had control of the extremists. The Arusha Agreement had spelled the end of privilege for the Hutu élite, and within government circles the competition to gain control of the rapidly shrinking economy and cream off foreign aid was fierce. After a series of betrayals and conspiracies, a group known as the Clan de Madame, and later as the Akazu, emerged predominant. Its power base was the family of Agathe Kanzinga, the President’s wife: with her three brothers, Kanzinga built up a network comprising members of the civil administration, bankers, businessmen and those who ran the President’s political party, the Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND). It also contained senior members of the Hutu-supremacist Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR), created in 1992, a gang who put it about that the Tutsi were ‘foreign invaders’, that they were lazy and refused to work the land. More ominous still was the formation of the Interahamwe militia, which began to organise hit squads and to plan for an exclusively Hutu republic.

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