Reflecting on Rwandan lessons

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Ten years ago this week in Rwanda, thousands of hate-filled Hutu extremists launched a well organized, 100-day campaign of killing that left more than 800,000 of their countrymen dead. Most of those killed, raped, and mutilated were Tutsis - the rest were pro-coexistence Hutus.

The features of that genocide should cause everyone, in Rwanda and internationally, to reflect on the terrifying capacity of humans to perpetrate acts of great cruelty, or to turn a callous, deliberately blind eye when such acts are committed against others.

Just to put the horror in stark statistical context, Rwanda's daily murder rate was several times greater than at the height of the Holocaust in Europe. But in Rwanda, unlike the Holocaust, the killing was low-tech and personal. The Hutu killers "worked" close up with machetes and nail-studded clubs, and only sometimes at an impersonal distance with guns or grenades.

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Hundreds of thousands of Hutu Rwandans participated in what seemed to many of them to be a somehow "necessary" activity. Alcohol and peer pressure both played a part in egging them on. Leading institutions in society, including many government and local church leaders, either participated directly or condoned the killings. In those circumstances, it is noteworthy that many Hutus stood aside from the pressure to participate: More than 150,000 of them lost their lives for that act of courage.

Today, Rwanda has a Tutsi-dominated government that is dedicated to rebuilding the links between the country's main communities: the Hutu majority (84 percent), the Tutsis (15 percent), and Twa Pygmies (1 percent).

This project faces many obstacles, including the legacies left by the genocide, the minority nature of the government, Rwanda's chronic poverty, and its location in a very unstable part of Africa.

When I was in Rwanda in 2002, I found that many local churches, especially evangelical churches, were by then playing a very constructive role in rebuilding and reconciliation. I met ministers like Antoine Rutayisire, Michel Kayitaba, and David Bucura - all genocide survivors - who were undertaking broad and effective ministries that combined an emphasis onreconciliation with team-building work on urgently needed development projects.

If Rwandans have many hard tasks to grapple with as they remember the genocide, so, too, do those of us who live in powerful countries elsewhere. The record of the "international community" in 1994 was not, by and large, an honorable one.

When the genocide started on April 7, 1994, there was a small UN peacekeeping force, UNAMIR, already in Rwanda. Its Canadian commander, Romeo Dallaire, had long been hearing reports of preparations for a mass killing. But his pleas to UN headquarters for permission to act against the planners went unanswered.

Then, almost immediately after the genocide started, the Hutu extremists killed a squad of Belgian peacekeepers. Belgium pulled the rest of its troops out of UNAMIR. Many other powerful nations, including the US, then tried to persuade the Security Council to disband UNAMIR completely. General Dallaire and some top aides - including officers from Ghana and Senegal - held on valiantly inside Rwanda. They were hopelessly understaffed and underequipped, but by their sheer presence they were able to save thousands of lives. The completely unarmed International Committee of the Red Cross and networks of courageous local and "international" people - at great risk to themselves - saved many thousands more.

Meanwhile, the handful of powerful nations that dominate Security Council decisionmaking all played a shameful role. Washington was still leery of international involvement because of the humiliation US troops had suffered in Somalia a few months earlier. But the US did not have to provide troops - it could have provided political, financial, and logistical support that would have strengthened UNAMIR considerably. Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved. It's even possible that determined UN action before - and at the launch of - the genocide could have deterred its planners from pursuing their hateful project in the first place.

What lessons, 10 years later, should leaders and voters in rich, powerful nations take from the events of that year?

• Sober "on the ground" assessments like Dallaire's should be taken seriously when they warn of atrocious violence ahead. Right now, fighting in Western Sudan is causing what the UN calls "the worst humanitarian crisis in the world." But what are the world's powerful nations doing to end the fighting and bring effective long-term aid to those people? Do Western voters even care?

• The UN needs to build a quick-response capability so it can send the right combination of unarmed and armed peacekeepers, peace negotiators, and humanitarian aid into crisis areas in timely fashion. Building each intervention force from scratch is hard and wastes time.

• "Solutions" devised in secure Western nations will often be inappropriate or even unhelpful. In late 1994, guilt-driven Security Council members created an international court to try the top leaders of the Rwandan genocide. That court has consumed more than $1 billion, and tried 20 individuals. Along the way it has kept Tutsi-Hutu polarizations alive. Most Rwandans say it has given them far less value than a similar amount in well-spent development aid.

• The terms of global trade put in place by rich Western nations have kept many countries in the global south mired in long-term poverty and thus susceptible to conflicts driven by fears over basic human needs. Do we in the West think that Rwandans, Sudanese, and other "southerners" are our moral equals? If we do, we should change the global trade rules and give them a chance to lead dignified, productive, and peaceful lives that are equal to ours.

Sound like a tall order? Maybe. But serious changes like these are what's needed if we really mean it when we say, "genocide: never again."

Helena Cobban, the author of five books on international issues, is working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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