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Remembering Rwanda

May 12, 1998



The 1994 massacres in Rwanda remain a huge piece of unfinished business for the world community. President Clinton said as much during his visit to the central African nation in March. Now UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has journeyed to the region too. His first stop was Arusha, Tanzania, to visit the international tribunal prosecuting key figures in the killing of more than half a million Rwandan Tutsis.

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Both leaders have had the finger of blame pointed at them for allowing the killing to go unchecked four years ago. Mr. Annan's role is criticized in The New Yorker magazine. Annan, then under secretary-general, is said to have ordered UN peacekeepers not to intervene after an informant told of Hutu plots to kill Tutsis. Annan has said the UN had little choice but to stay aloof, given the resistance of the Western powers (notably the US).

Decisions made then have to be understood in the context of a UN, and US, sobered by bloodshed in Somalia. UN officials were leery of placing peacekeepers in explosive, faction-ridden situations. That's not to excuse inaction. Everyone now agrees that more should have been done to avert Rwandan massacres.

Annan is right: The UN's mission now is to "ensure that such a tragedy can never happen again."

A big part of that job involves the administration of justice. Sure punishment for those who perpetrate atrocity can help block future genocidal impulses. One version of such punishment was administered recently in Rwanda itself, where 22 people accused of involvement in the 1994 killings were summarily tried and executed. Rwandans' desire for swift justice is understandable, but 125,000 accused are still in jail in Rwanda awaiting trial. If vengeance gains the upper hand, another bloodbath could rend the tiny country.

The UN-run tribunal in Tanzania, next door to Rwanda, has not moved swiftly. It was plagued by poor management and sparse resources. Some problems have been resolved; many remain. A breakthrough came May 1 when former Rwandan prime minister Jean Kambanda pleaded guilty to charges of genocide and agreed to testify against others. There's hope, now, for expedited prosecution of the 21 codefendants now in custody.

The war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, like that for Bosnia, represents a sometimes halting move toward an international structure to deal with horrendous crimes that defy national jurisdiction. Such tribunals, of course, should be paired with reliable peacekeeping capabilities to limit conflict and waylay mass killing. The often tragic record of the 20th century impels these advances.