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.

Dallaire’s informer told him that Belgian peacekeepers would be killed in order to get the UN out of Rwanda, after which the Tutsi would be wiped out. The Interahamwe operated in cells of forty men, with one militia member keeping watch over ten Tutsi families, and boasted of being able to kill a thousand people in twenty minutes. Not surprisingly, it enjoyed the support of the military and the police. The informer knew of orders to register by house and street every Tutsi in Kigali. In exchange for safe passage from Rwanda, he would give the location of weapons dumps. Dallaire immediately cabled the Department of Peacekeeping Operations but was told by officials that protection for informers was not part of his mandate. He should go to Habyarimana with this new information and tell the Ambassadors of France, Belgium and America of the informer’s claims.

By now Dallaire’s mandate was up for renewal. The non-permanent members on the Council at the time were the Czech Republic, Djibouti, New Zealand, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Spain, Argentina, Brazil and – ironically – Rwanda. New Zealand had just assumed the presidency and, along with most of the non-permanent members, was in favour of maintaining the peacekeepers. The Council was divided. America wanted a pull-out, its Ambassador, Madeleine Albright, arguing that the continual delays in the transition process meant that the Rwandese were not serious about peace. The UN should learn to be selective, and help only those willing to help themselves.

Boutros Ghali suggested a two-month extension to give the transition time to work, but reiterated that UN help depended on the two sides showing the political will to implement the Arusha Agreement. Reporting to the Council on the progress of the peacekeepers, he was quite optimistic. Although the security situation in Kigali had seriously deteriorated, the cease-fire was holding; at least both sides were still talking to each other. International effort should focus on persuading Habyarimana to implement the peace agreement. The deeper and more dangerous problems of Rwanda were not addressed in his report, despite the likelihood that the permanent members – with their intelligence-gathering resources – knew what was going on. In April 1994 these nations still spoke of what was going on as a small civil war. Only later was it publicly accepted that circumstances were much more complex and dangerous than any information presented to the Security Council suggested.

In March this year I met with Colin Keating, the New Zealand president of the Council. I showed him a copy of the January cable to headquarters in which Dallaire related his informer’s warning of genocide. Keating had never seen the cable before. He paused a long time, then said: ‘If I had seen this ... I would have torn my hair out.’ Had the other non-permanent members of the Council seen the cable, he continued, none of them could have sat back. Why had he not seen it? ‘It was the mushroom principle: we were kept in the dark.’

On 5 April 1994, the Security Council issued a last warning to the people of Rwanda. Unless there was an immediate cessation of violence, in six weeks the UN would withdraw. The following day Habyarimana was assassinated: his Mystère Falcon jet, about to land at Kigali airport, was blown out of the sky by two missiles. Within the hour the Hutu extremist radio station, Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines, RTLM, appealed for his death to be avenged. Road blocks went up; a curfew was imposed; telephone lines were cut.

The first victims, trapped in their homes, were those Hutu and Tutsi who had challenged the regime – lawyers, journalists, human-rights activists, teachers, students, social workers. In one night the opposition parties and human-rights groups were wiped out. The names and addresses of the intended victims had been stored on index cards kept in wooden boxes on grey metal shelves, row upon row. To speed up the killing, codes had been painted on certain houses. The Interahamwe began to spread into Tutsi neighbourhoods. ‘Do not leave the graves empty,’ an RTML announcer exhorted. In the following days Tutsi populations fled to churches, schools, colleges and hospitals. Thousands more sought protection under the UN flag.

Within a few hours of the Habyarimana assassination, the Security Council held its first emergency meeting on Rwanda, briefed by Boutros Ghali’s Special Political Adviser, the Indian diplomat Chinmaya Gharekhan. Gharekhan told the Council that ten Belgian peace-keepers had been killed; a ‘wave of violence’ had hit the UN mission and there was now no force that could ensure the functioning of state power. On day two, Boutros Ghali, who continued his scheduled tour of European capitals, wrote a letter to the Council from Geneva: ‘It is quite possible that the evacuation of Unamir and other UN personnel might become unavoidable ... the members of the Security Council might wish to give this matter their urgent attention.’ On day three, 9 April, at another meeting to discuss Rwanda, the Council was told by officials from Boutros Ghali’s office that violence was on the increase in Kigali. The focus of this meeting was the immediate evacuation from Rwanda of all foreigners; a rescue operation had already been organised by France and Belgium, the countries with most nationals in Rwanda, whose troops were flying to Kigali to assist in their evacuation. The meeting ended with the ambassadors agreeing a list of points which would help them in answering the inevitable questions of the press: they would express concern for the safety of the UN troops in Rwanda but nothing more specific than that. The Security Council, they were to say, ‘remained seized of the matter’.

On day four, 10 April, two Polish peacekeepers on a rescue mission in southern Kigali found the bodies of dozens of schoolchildren at a place called Gikondo. The peacekeepers were told how Rwandese gendarmes had thrown a cordon around the parish. Tutsi seeking refuge in the Church were trapped in the garden by the militia. In a nearby school, teachers had been told to line up the children who had Tutsi fathers. Their names were checked against lists prepared by local officials, then they were taken out and marched to a side road, where the militia was waiting for them. Their bodies were still on the road. One of the peacekeepers filmed them and described what was going on as genocide.

That day, Dallaire received a telephone call from Gharekhan, who told him that Belgium had officially notified the UN that, as a result of the deaths of their peacekeepers, all Belgian troops were to pull out. Dallaire knew that the decision would mean abandoning thousands of people whom the Belgians were sheltering from the Interahamwe; Gharekhan also told Dallaire that a complete withdrawal of the peacekeepers was now on the cards. Dallaire lost his temper: thousands of civilian lives, he said, depended on them – a complete withdrawal was out of the question. But Belgian diplomats, according to Gharekhan, were warning that all the UN soldiers were going to be caught up in a bloodbath; Boutros Ghali wanted Dallaire to plan a total evacuation.

Dallaire protested. He believed that an early show of force by the international community would have intimidated the Interahamwe; and, even taking into account an airport which was unsafe, with properly trained troops the radio station could have been knocked out and the Presidential Guard cut off. The roadblocks were only sticks and dustbins and shooting in the air was enough to terrify the Interahamwe. The Rwandese Army were easily frightened and at first did not want to fight; this was not Somalia, where fighting was ingrained in the culture. Even now, with a brigade of five thousand armed soldiers and at a cost of $10 million, it would still be possible, he argued, to save thousands of people.

On day five, 11 April, the Council was briefed on the continuing fighting between government troops and soldiers from the RPF, and officials from Boutros Ghali’s office again made it clear that only if a ceasefire was implemented would the peacekeepers be able to stay. The following day, the Security Council was told by Secretariat officials that a ceasefire was no nearer. By now, America’s position was plain: at the risk of adverse public opinion, the Clinton Administration wanted a total withdrawal. American diplomats argued that the safety of the blue helmets was the Council’s first priority. There were howls of outrage from other members. The British Ambassador, Sir David Hannay, reviewed the options. The first was to reinforce the troops to give the peacekeepers a stronger mandate, though Hannay warned that this had been the UN strategy in Somalia. Second, the troops could pull out completely, risking a negative public reaction. Third, the troops could stay on, even if it was unclear what they could do. The fourth and last option was to pull most of them out, leaving behind ‘some elements’: though this might initially attract public criticism, it seemed to be the safest bet. The Americans remained sceptical.

On day seven, 13 April, the Council meeting was initially taken up with another letter from Boutros Ghali, warning that unless the Belgians – shortly to pull out – were replaced by equally well-equipped troops, the mission would have to withdraw completely. Some ambassadors thought he was being canny, using the Belgian withdrawal to cover the fact that he wanted a UN withdrawal. Boutros Ghali’s position was unclear. By now, the Americans were beginning to come round to Hannay’s token force, a compromise which they seemed prepared to live with. At this meeting, Hannay criticised Boutros Ghali, arguing that the letter from the Secretary General was a far from adequate response to the crisis. It was unfair to blame Belgium for pulling out: ten Belgian soldiers had been killed and there was overwhelming domestic pressure to bring the troops home. How could Boutros Ghali think, as he seemed to do, that if the Belgian Government allowed its troops to remain, all would be well? There was a need to protect civilians and, at present capacity, the peacekeepers could not achieve even that. Later in the meeting, the subject of civilian protection was again raised, this time by Emilio Cardenas of Argentina, who reminded those present that some 14,000 people were under UN care in Rwanda. Only Djibouti’s Ambassador asked for reinforcements. But without the support of the Permanent Five there was no hope. A draft Nigerian resolution that the peacekeepers be allowed to ‘enforce public order and the rule of law and create temporary state institutions’ was discussed. It stood little chance. The meeting adjourned.

Resistance to withdrawal persisted, on the part of Colin Keating in particular. But Boutros Ghali went on insisting that continued UN involvement was predicated on a ceasefire. Hannay, concerned that the peacekeepers could achieve very little and risked being killed, urged a speedy decision. China, the only country which had not closed its embassy in Kigali, dissented. There was no imminent danger to the peacekeepers in Rwanda, the Chinese Ambassador informed the Council, and what they were doing was useful. There were no further meetings, it being a weekend.

Eleven days into the genocide, on 17 April, Dallaire, incredulous at New York’s indecisiveness, sent a cable to headquarters warning that the massacres were accelerating. ‘The militia have displayed drunkenness, drug abuse and sadistic brutality. They do not respect the UN flag, the Red Cross or any other humanitarian symbol. They will not hesitate to stop any convoy ... It is becoming more and more difficult to move about the city due to the militia ... They are a very large, dangerous and totally irrational group of people.’ Bodies littered the streets and were a significant health hazard; Tutsi were being executed on the spot at road blocks. According to Dallaire, the peacekeepers had smuggled out small numbers of refugees, but it was only a matter of time before a confrontation occurred.

With the pull-out of the Belgian peacekeepers, the future for the mission looked grim. The Belgian troops were the only ones with heavy weapons and any logistical capability. Few of the remaining peacekeepers were trained soldiers; once the genocide began, there was panic among them and desertion was a serious problem. The largest contingent – 942 from Bangladesh – ran for cover. They had training but lacked experience, as well as sufficient vehicles and support weapons. The Bangladesh field hospital had few medical supplies, having expected the UN to provide medicines. The reason the Bangladeshi soldiers were in Rwanda was that the UN paid $1000 a month for each soldier, out of which the Bangladesh Government paid them $ 10 a month. There was little Dallaire could do with them. Every evening he put his terrified soldiers on alert to evacuate; every morning he cancelled the order. ‘Does Unamir risk an armed confrontation, for which we are not equipped, protected or mandated, at considerable risk to our own troops, to save these people or do we leave them for possible extermination?’ he asked in another cable. Without men, weapons and equipment, further rescue was hopeless. ‘The force simply cannot continue to sit on the fence in the face of all these morally legitimate demands for assistance/protection ... Maintaining the status quo on manpower under these severe and adverse conditions is wasteful, dangerous and demoralising to the troops.’

In spite of Dallaire’s cables, the Secretariat officials persisted in portraying Rwanda as a failed state under threat from rogue troops. The Security Council was given details of the renewed fighting between Hutu extremists and the RPF and the evacuation of both expats and peacekeepers was urgently considered. But there was no mention of genocide. As the crisis deepened, Keating and the Czech Republic’s representative, Karel Kovanda, realised that they could learn more about what was happening from human-rights groups in New York than from briefings within the Council. What Kovanda chiefly remembers from this time is a ‘rudderless’ Security Council and American diplomats busily trying to get the required nine votes from Council to pass a resolution to withdraw.

On 21 April, after two weeks of genocide, Boutros Ghali finally produced the appraisal of the situation in Rwanda which the Council had repeatedly asked for. It presented a picture of anarchy and slaughter, and effectively offered a choice between reinforcing the peacekeepers with several thousand troops to enable them to ‘coerce the opposing forces into a ceasefire’, and withdrawing the majority of the troops, leaving a small group to act as intermediary between the two armies. But, in one of the breaks in the meeting to discuss the report, some of the non-permanent members were quietly briefed by the Secretary General’s military adviser, Maurice Baril. A major battle for Kigali was imminent, Baril told them, and airport escape could soon be impossible. The Bangladeshi soldiers were living in constant fear in ‘internment camp conditions’; they were ‘exhausted, confused and questioning the responsibility of their superiors’. If they were not evacuated there was a danger they would leave anyway. That night the Council approved Resolution 912, its first decision on the Rwanda crisis. All the peacekeepers were to be withdrawn, apart from 270, who would stay on with Dallaire as ‘intermediaries’ in the civil war.

The next day at the National University campus in Butare, Rwanda’s second city and intellectual capital, which had so far been spared, students were dragged screaming from dormitories, herded into an arboretum and shot. The militia rampaged through a hospital, killing all the Tutsi, among them a pregnant nurse accused of carrying a Tutsi baby. On 24 April, Human Rights Watch/Africa estimated that 100,000 people had been murdered in just 18 days. The following day, an Oxfam emergencies officer on the Burundi-Rwanda border, Maurice Herson, worked out that all previous death estimates were too low: he had spoken with people fleeing the country and realised that the figure was more likely to be half a million. Herson telephoned Oxfam’s headquarters. He said he did not want to use the word ‘genocide’ but it was the only one which seemed appropriate. The next day he called Oxford again, agitated and angry at Security Council inactivity. It was anyway too late, he said. Everyone was dead. In Oxfam’s headquarters the press officer, John Magrath, wanted to go public; he told Herson that to give it a name would at least provide a moral and legal stick with which to beat the Security Council. Later a call came in from Alfred Sakafu, an Oxfam emergencies officer in Tanzania, to say that thousands of bodies were clogging the Akagera River flowing from Rwanda.

On 28 April, Oxfam sent out a press release with the headline: ‘Oxfam fears genocide is happening in Rwanda.’ There was a flicker of interest. Twenty-four hours later, the fastest refugee crisis the world had ever seen overshadowed everything else when, incited by tales of RPF advances, two million people fled Rwanda. Magrath’s diary records: ‘the South African elections were over and all the TV crews were diverted to Tanzania – the refugees became the story, not the genocide.’ At last the international community took action: the refugee crisis was to cost it billions in aid.

On 9 May 1994, a month into the genocide, the House of Commons was told by Mark Lennox-Boyd, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, that in Rwanda 200,000 people ‘may have perished in a horrific and tragic civil war’. A week later, John Major again spoke of a ‘bitter civil war’. There was nothing from the British Government to suggest that a new Hutu extremist government (which the British called the ‘interim government’) had organised the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. The record of the Opposition is scarcely better. After four weeks a telephone call from desperate Oxfam officials to the office of David Clark, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, prompted only a letter to Malcolm Rifkind, calling for the UN and the OAU to organise an immediate deployment of forces. Clark thought that the British could supply the ‘advice and expertise that our Armed Forces possess’: there was no mention of sending troops. On 17 May Rifkind wrote back suggesting that troops for Rwanda would probably come from regional forces in Africa – which, unlike the next sentence, was quite correct. Rifkind, for reasons which remain obscure, claimed: ‘The UK has not been asked to provide any personnel for the operation.’ At the time he wrote this, desperate pleas had gone to all member states for help. When I showed a copy of the letter to the UN Secretariat in New York, a furious official commented: ‘How dare a permanent member claim this? Where did Rifkind think we were going to get troops? It’s incredible ... it’s immoral.’ It was not until June 1994 that a British official came near to acknowledging what really happened in Rwanda. During a rare public meeting of the Security Council Sir David Hannay spoke up: ‘There have been some well substantiated accounts of the most appalling massacres, of acts that – we note the Secretary General’s conclusion – amount to genocide.’

By June the situation in and around Rwanda was considered serious enough for Lynda Chalker, the Minister for Overseas Development, to fly there. She met Dallaire, was friendly and charming with him and asked him what he needed in the way of equipment. He gave her his ‘shopping list’, which by then had been faxed around the world many times – and later spoke his mind to me about the belated British concern. When she returned to London, Chalker tried to explain Britain’s measly response on Newsnight. She blamed the UN. There had been agreement, she said, that forces from the OAU would go to help but there had been problems with procurement of soldiers and equipment. Procurement was something ‘that the UN really has got to put right’. (Britain, as Dallaire had reminded her, had offered fifty 40-ton four-wheel-drive trucks – but they never arrived.) ‘We all know what we wanted the UN to deliver,’ she continued. ‘The problem is that there is no mechanism on an international scale to achieve it.’ Neither, she might have added, was there the political will.

In the official records of the UN, a telling addition has been made: the claim that time and time again Boutros Ghali appealed for a reinforcement of the peacekeepers. As has been made clear, he did not. It is true that on 29 April he asked the Security Council for troops to send to Rwanda to ‘restore law and order and end the massacres’. But the killings had been going on for a month before he finally said: ‘my position is that we must intervene ... because it is a question of genocide.’ The official version is that it was up to the Security Council to act and that no member of the Council even came forward to suggest a course of action. Kofi Annan, director of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, says that at any time during the genocide any member state on the Council could have taken the initiative. ‘I find it difficult to accept that member states with more intelligence-gathering capabilities than the UN did not know what was happening.’ Asked whether or not officials had been subservient to the concerns of the permanent members, Annan says that, even had the Council focused on genocide, it is doubtful whether troops would have been provided. There were crises elsewhere, in Bosnia and Haiti. Not one country capable of doing so wanted to send troops to Rwanda: the shadow of Somalia hung over them and peace was not considered worth the lives of the peacekeepers. The mistakes over Rwanda are too quickly and easily disregarded. Rwanda broke the world’s most atrocious records: in ten weeks more than half a million people were killed. The numbers of dead in four years of the Balkan war were not so high.