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7 July 2003

The lessons we can learn from Rwanda

Our obsession with fighting terrorism is creating dangerously weakened states. The consequences for

By Clare Short

Rwanda is a beautiful country that shares borders with Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). In a genocide during 100 days in 1994, one million of its eight million people were slaughtered – mostly by machete. The events of 1994 received little coverage in Britain. Rwanda was a francophone country about which we knew little. The UK representative at the United Nations, like others, evaded our duties under a key international convention by refusing to use the word genocide.

The world had signed up to the Genocide Convention in 1948 after the Holocaust in Europe. It obliged signatories to intervene to prevent such crimes. The Rwandan genocide was organised and predicted. There was a UN peacekeeping mission in the country which was supposed to help enforce a previously negotiated peace agreement. The Canadian head of mission, General Romeo Dallaire, repeatedly warned UN headquarters of the threatened slaughter and called for help. Instead, the UN mission was pulled out and the large number of Rwandans who had fled to the UN encampment, thinking they would be protected, were systematically killed. People also sought sanctuary in churches across the country, but were slaughtered and their remains left on the church floors, or thrown into mass graves.

The first time I visited Rwanda in 1998, I met a woman near one of the churches who had crawled out from a mass grave. She had a deep scar across her shoulder, but she was alive because she had had a baby on her back who died, but who saved her life. A new baby nestled against her scar. I decided then that the UK should do all we could to help the people of Rwanda ensure that that baby’s generation grew up without the fear of genocide.

The ethnic hatred that made such events possible was generated by Belgian colonialism. Rwandans have one shared language and a long history as a united country. But some people were cattle-owners and others tilled the land. Some were tall with thin features like Ethiopians or Eritreans and others more stocky, with broader features, like the majority of Africans. The Belgians – like most colonists – based their power on divide and rule. They embellished a racial myth that the tall, thin Tutsi minority were descended from royal lineages and the stocky Hutus were an inferior people. The Tutsis were then educated and used as administrators, while the rest of the people were treated harshly. As independence spread across Africa, the colonists realised that the Tutsis couldn’t win an election in the society they had polarised, and so, in order to maintain influence, switched sides.

After independence, Tutsis were not allowed to be educated and were oppressed and discriminated against. There were outbreaks of ethnic killing and displacement. In 1989, refugee Rwandans based in Uganda who had helped President Yoweri Museveni to liberate Uganda formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front. They moved into Rwanda in 1990 and made very rapid progress. By 1992, they were on the outskirts of Kigali – the capital – and could easily have taken over, but the international community pressed hard for negotiations. An agreement was reached to set up a transitional government, bringing all parties together with a commitment to unity and reconciliation. A UN peacekeeping force was organised to uphold a peace agreement. But some elements in the government of Juvenal Habyarimana did not want to share power and started to organise the killing of all Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Hate radio poured out diatribes of lies and poison, calling for the Tutsis to be eliminated.

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After three months of slaughter in 1994, the RPF took Kigali. They found the Central Bank looted. The ministries had no files, papers or windows. The people were traumatised and millions had fled their homes. The country needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Humanitarian agencies poured into the country, but none was willing to help rebuild state institutions. The UK – having no history in Rwanda – was in a position to play a useful role. We decided in 1998 to take the lead role in helping Rwanda rebuild.

The army and militias that had organised the genocide withdrew as the RPF advanced into what was then Zaire under the protection of President Mobutu, who had supported the Habyarimana regime and the genocide. Pictures of vast numbers of refugees camped near Goma and running a high risk of cholera were beamed around the world. NGOs rushed in and supplies were provided to the camps. The problem was that the organisers of the genocide controlled the camps, and used their control over food and other necessities to incite Hutu civilians to join their movement and reinvade Rwanda and complete the genocide. There were repeated incursions and continued killing. This led to Rwanda’s invasion of Zaire to break up the camps and encourage the refugees to return home. It also led to the downfall of Mobutu.

Nine years later, Rwanda has withdrawn from Congo, secured its borders against the insurgents and established peace across its territory. Two million refugees have returned home. There are more children in school now than at any other point in Rwanda’s history. Passbooks labelling people as Hutu and Tutsi have been abolished. Debt relief has been secured, strong financial management systems established so that there is not a problem of corruption. Poverty has been reduced and the economy is growing at 8 per cent per annum.

After a period of national consultation, a constitution has been drawn up and adopted in a referendum. It has a strong focus on national reconciliation, resolving “to fight genocide in all its manifestations and to eradicate ethnic, regional and other forms of division”. Parliament has been established. National commissions for human rights, reconciliation and the fight against genocide are up and running.

The constitution also provides that the president and prime minister cannot come from the same party, and any party that represents more than 50 per cent of seats in parliament cannot take more than half the seats in cabinet. One-third of the seats in parliament are reserved for women.

All of this is an astonishing achievement, but Rwanda remains a desperately poor country. It will need to maintain economic growth at current levels for the next ten years to lift all Rwandans out of abject poverty. As people who participated in genocide are released from prison, they are allowed to return to their villages provided they are willing to tell the truth and apologise. I attended one such hearing. Two men explained their role in the killing of about 12 people – including children. It was enormously painful. Tears rolled down the women’s cheeks and the men looked stony-faced at the ground. I asked representatives of the widows’ organisation whether it was bearable. They said it was very hard, but often you had been unconscious when your children were killed. It helped to know what had happened. Again and again, people said, “We have to overcome the past, we must leave behind the hatred, or we have no future.”

When I met and talked with people in the north-west – genocide survivors, released prisoners and those who had returned home from camps in Congo – they were clear that they must reconcile and move forward, but also fearful, because they knew there were armed groups just across the border organising to reinvade Rwanda. The Security Council is deeply engaged in working to resolve this problem, but up to now has made very slow progress.

The fighting in eastern Congo, recently highlighted in the media, is a consequence of the failure to disarm and resettle those responsible for the genocide. Congo – like other oil- and mineral-rich African countries – has suffered gross exploitation from the colonial era onwards. And thus a country as big as western Europe, with roughly 55 million people, suffers hunger and disease and has no roads, schools or basic services. It is a huge failed state within which the organisers of the genocide are allowed to live, obtain arms and seek to reinvade Rwanda. The UN has facilitated peace negotiations. There is a ceasefire and an agreement to form a transitional government, draw up a constitution and move forward to elections and development. But those who control the government in Kinshasa are delaying implementation of the peace deal and helping to rearm the genocidal forces and other militias in the east. Thus Rwanda and Uganda help arm the groups sympathetic to them and eastern Congolese continue to suffer.

If the international community would stand together to back the Security Council resolutions and insist on the installation of the transitional government, the UN mission in Congo – Monuc – could fulfil its mandate to disarm the genocidal forces. It could then send the small fry back to Rwanda and their leaders to the International Court set up to try those who organised the genocide.

Despite the foot-dragging, I feel hopeful. Divisions in the international community have softened. France is being more helpful. South Africa is playing an important role in driving forward the peace. And Rwanda is demonstrating that a country with such a bitter history can rebuild and offer hope to its people. There is hope for that baby on her mother’s scarred back to grow up with the prospect of a better future.

But there are important lessons for the international community. Post-colonial games in Africa led to events such as the 1994 genocide. There are many failed states in Africa. Twenty per cent of the people are living under conditions of conflict. HIV/Aids adds to the burden of malaria and drought that is impoverishing the continent. For the sake of Africa, but also for the security and prosperity of Europe, we need to take conflict resolution and state-building in Africa more seriously. And we need to work to rebuild failed states. The crises in East Timor, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Iraq are not over. Rebuilding takes time and patience.

The current obsession of world leaders with fighting terrorism by means of military power is leaving a trail of half-formed states behind it. It is also generating bitterness and division. We should of course act together against those who kill innocent civilians. We should also apologise for our failure to protect a million innocent Rwandans. Only through a commitment to justice and equity across the world will the next generation be safe from growing bitterness, terrorism, disease and environmental degradation.

Clare Short visited Rwanda from 23-27 June 2003 at the invitation of the Today programme, Radio 4

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