Ready to Act - Article from the House Magazine by Oona King

Eleven years ago in Rwanda, things were looking relatively optimistic: the civil war between the Government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front had come to an end. Both parties agreed to a broad based transitional government to pave the way to elections, and both sides had agreed that the United Nations should assist in the implementation of the agreement. The UN arrived in late October 1993 on what was seen as a classic UN mission – to monitor a ceasefire and help implement an agreed peace deal. But ten years ago in Rwanda, there was genocide: around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in just 100 days.

The UN’s independent report into the events of 1994 concluded that both the UN and its member states, including the UK, knew about the impending disaster, but failed to prevent it. That failure shames us all. Early warnings were ignored; suggestions for preventive measures were refused; expatriates and their pets were evacuated, but Rwandans were simply left to die; the UN even reduced the size of its mission as the genocide reached its peak. As Romeo Dallaire - the Commander of the UN mission whose many pleas for action were ignored - made clear when he spoke to the APPG on 29th March 2004, ‘There was simply no will to get involved’.

It was not until Tony Worthington rose to speak late in the night at the end of May 1994, that the Commons first discussed events in Rwanda. By then the genocide was almost over. In the absence of international assistance, the Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the genocidaires by force and assumed control of the state.

It is difficult to imagine the scale of the task that faced the people and Government of Rwanda after the genocide: they had to create peace and security whilst simultaneously bringing justice and fostering reconciliation. They had to rebuild the economy. When I visited Rwanda in 1998 with other members of the International Development Select Committee, their Department for Economic Affairs didn’t even have a photocopier.

It is a testament to Rwanda’s energy, dynamism and resilience that it has managed to come so far in just ten years. I recently hosted a reception for Rwanda’s first ever Fair Trade coffee, made by a women’s collective from Maraba. There, both Hutu and Tutsi women work together on a project that is bringing tangible benefits to their lives. The picture (left) was taken in a highly successful ‘solidarity camp’ which – despite the name – is where ex-combatants are demobilised and helped to rebuild their lives in society. There are so many examples of success stories like this one.

There are also problems. The Rwandan Government has an uneasy relationship with the survivors of genocide, many of whom are widows, and are abandoned to their fate of a slow death from AIDS. And the Rwandan Government’s role in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been widely criticised, with accusations of human rights violations and the plunder of its neighbour’s mineral resources.

The UK is the world’s largest bilateral donor to Rwanda – we will give £46million in 2005/6, and we are committed to a ten year engagement plan signed in 1999. We have a lot to be proud of in this area. I believe our support genuinely helped Rwanda to turn the corner. However, with two thirds of the money being paid in the form of direct budgetary support, the UK has a special responsibility to ensure that our funds are being spent where they are most needed. The ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ between the UK and Rwanda is therefore a vitally important document and should be fully adhered to. Likewise, the UK, in wishing to promote the rule of law, must support the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in its efforts to bring to justice all those who may have committed crimes against humanity in Rwanda during 1994.

Eleven years ago, Rwanda was just another African country, signing just another peace deal. But within twelve months, it was in the midst of genocide. Today, Burundi remains perilously close to total chaos, and Kofi Annan’s call for a UN military presence there has not received the support it deserves. If we do not act, it seems inevitable that something catastrophic will at some point take hold of that tortured country. In Sudan, whilst there is talk of a peace deal in the south, in Darfur (Western Sudan) massive violations of human rights have been documented in what the UN has called ‘more than just a conflict. It is an organised attempt to do away with a group of people.’ As conflicts around the world continue to rage, we must be ready to act to prevent genocide. The practical measures envisaged in the Declaration of the Stockholm International Forum on Preventing Genocide, such as a UN special rapporteur on genocide, must become reality. Until we establish proper mechanisms to prevent genocide, the call of ‘never again’ will remain what it is: a hollow soundbite.