Twenty-five years ago a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down over an airport in Rwanda. The event marked the beginning of a genocide in which an estimated one million Rwandan’s were slaughtered, approximately 70 percent of its population.
France has just announced an investigation into the country’s role in the genocide.
“Twenty-five years on it is time for them to open their archives and either confirm and apologise for, or put to bed the arguments that France was somehow complicit,” says Colin Keating, who at the time, was New Zealand’s ambassador to the UN Security Council.
“Belgium had been the colonial power in Rwanda and after independence, Rwanda very quickly fell into two very strongly opposing camps. The majority group, the Hutu population, and the minority who were the Tutsi,” says Keating.
Under Belgium rule the Tusti were favoured and given prominent leadership positions, says Keating, creating a grievance and resentment.
This lead to a civil war, he says.
The Tutsi retreated into neighbouring Uganda, a former British colony and Tutsi rebels in Uganda carried the war over to Rwanda to protect the Tutsi there.
“The French sent military advisors to assist the Rwandan Hutu government and that’s why there were French military personnel in quite significant numbers in Rwanda,” says Keating.
When New Zealand came into the UN security council in 1993, there was some hope the UN would get involved in a peacekeeping capacity in Rwanda and New Zealand requested such a mission, but most major powers on the Council, led by the US, were opposed to any more peacekeeping in African countries.
The peacekeeping mission that was eventually sanctioned was kept on a tight leash, with the US only wanting it funded for six or so weeks at a time, says Keating.
“They were constantly saying, ‘if there is any resumption of violence, the UN has to get out’ we can’t afford to have any further engagement,” he says.
“What we found out in hindsight, but nobody knew at the time of the genocide in the security council apart from a few of the permanent members, was that in January 1994 the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, General Dallaire, a Canadian general, had warned the UN headquarters that mass atrocities were being planned, he had intelligence and he asked for authority to act against it.”
That authority was not given and the intelligence was not passed on to the Security Council.
When the plane was shot down in April 1994, it was the last straw and was the trigger for a pre-planned set of exterminations to take place.
The Rwandan president had just signed a power-sharing deal between the Hutu government and Tusti armed forces during a peace conference in Tanzania.
The Hutu extremists didn’t want to abide by this deal.
Keating says he remembers first realising the extent of what was happening in Rwanda.
“Easter that year was right at the beginning of April, and the UN was closed on Good Friday, which was the 1st of April. I took home with me, from the office, a bunch of papers that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I sat in my apartment and read these reports about Rwanda and I thought to myself, oh my god, there have been already in Rwanda several instances of what we would call genocide. How is it that I didn’t know about that, how is it that no-one in the West knew about that and how is it not being alerted to us by the professional staff in the Secretariat ”
He says Rwanda was sitting at the table, they had just been given a seat on the Security Council.
“They almost had the problem right in the midst.”
But, he says, there’s no excuse for the Secretariat not finding a way to tell the other members of the council informally. The US, France, probably Britain, China and Russia were briefed though.
“In the space of six-eight weeks, neighbours killed neighbours, villages killed villages, people killed their fellow parishioners in churches and 800,000 people died.”
Much worse was to come, says Keating.
The Tusti armed forces resumed the civil war and drove the Hutu to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The perpetrators of the genocide then set about destabilising the DRC government and for another 20 years there was a war in which nearly 3 million people died, he says.
“You have a cascading effect of a million people dying in Rwanda and then 3 million people dying in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“All blood’s flowing from systemic failures. Blood partly on the hands of UN officials but blood mainly on the hands of the member states of the UN - the ones that had the power to do something and failed to do it.”
The French must have known this was brewing and chose to do nothing, just as the US did, he says.
25 years on
“The most important thing you notice when you go there now is the orderliness the cleanliness and the vibrancy of the society," says Keating.
Rwanda is half the size of New Zealand’s North Island, there are now 7 million people living there.
“They have done remarkable things in terms of quality of life. Rwanda is one of the very few countries where there is not only free primary education but there is free universal secondary education as well. They’ve got very good universities, they are actually developing a very impressive society. They are one of the few countries in the world where over 50 percent of their members of Parliament are women.”
Freedom of speech, however, isn’t what it is here, the political space is tightly managed in Rwanda, he says.
“Genocide doesn’t just happen, it actually is a result of a long period of building up of hatred between communities. Extremism starting in small nests of very angry and bitter and selfish people but then spreading to a whole community.”
Keating says it’s important to remember that genocide was also happening in Bosnia at the same time.
“It’s not something that only happens in poor developing countries in Africa, it can happen in rich, white Western countries as well and that’s why it’s really important that hate speech and hatred be squeezed out of the political discourse.”
This requires constraints on otherwise liberal permissions, he says.
Human Rights covenants recognise that in order to protect the rights of everyone, it is possible to limit the rights of some in some ways. It’s a challenge for leaders, he says.
“I think we need to keep an open mind as far as Rwanda is concerned, the question I think will be able to be put the test in another five or ten years as to whether Rwanda can make the transition to a plural democracy in which the Hutu community can continue to play a role.
“But as long as there are those who insist that the genocide never happened, that there never was a genocide, in the same way, that there are deniers of the Nazi holocaust, as long there are people trying to leverage that into domestic politics, and hatred, then there is very little choice than to keep very tight control over social and political activity.”
Keating was eventually awarded Rwanda's Campaign against Genocide medal for his efforts to condemn the genocide and facilitate peace. He now lives in Wellington.