Remembering Rwanda 20 years on

  • Articles and op-ed

Twenty years ago the world watched a tragedy unfold in Rwanda – a tragedy that was generations in the making but by no means inevitable.  

Twenty years after we said ‘Never Again’ in response to the genocide in Rwanda, we are witnessing unspeakable crimes being committed in places like Syria and the Central African Republic.  This is a stark reminder that despite the progress made, we need to take stock and learn from past experience.  

Over just 100 days, Rwanda became a by-word for the international community’s failure to respond to genocide: though the UN personnel on the ground raised the alarm that major violence was imminent, there was little the small UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR) could do to respond effectively.  Over 800,000 people were massacred.  

Peacekeepers managed to shelter thousands of people but the scale of the crisis was beyond their capacity and their mandate. Australia contributed a contingent of 638 Australian Defence Force personnel to provide medical aid and support security efforts under the second phase of the UN operation.  Many Australian personnel were greatly affected by the suffering they witnessed in Rwanda.  

Lessons from Rwanda also spurred the unanimous endorsement by world leaders in 2005 of the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), recognising the responsibility we all share to protect our communities from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. While it is the primary role of States to protect their own populations from evil, the international community has a responsibility to assist States to exercise that responsibility and, in appropriate circumstances, to take collective action, consistent with the Charter, to prevent such mass atrocity crimes.

Last week, Australia and other members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and explored the further steps that should be taken to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future.  The anniversary was also commemorated at an event in Melbourne. 

In New York, Australia is working to improve how the UNSC responds to conflicts on its agenda more generally, including those involving mass atrocity crimes.  In doing so we draw on the lessons we have learned from these terrible events as well as our own experiences in international peacekeeping.  

We advocate for greater UNSC focus on protection of civilians and humanitarian access in its approach to conflicts.  With Jordan and Luxembourg, Australia was able to co-author Resolution 2139, which mandates humanitarian access in Syria to help get aid to civilians affected by the conflict.  On 10 April, we co-sponsored a Resolution establishing a UN peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic with a robust mandate to protect civilians.

Even when the international community is committed, addressing major conflicts is difficult; preventing nascent threats is a far more preferable option.  Accordingly, Australia advocates improving the way the UNSC works to prevent threats to international peace and security.  As UNSC President, Australia scheduled ‘horizon scanning’ scenarios to consider emerging threats in a timely manner.  We believe that such sessions ought to be held on a regular basis, and that the UNSC should seek more regular briefings from the Secretary-General’s Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect.  Australia also advocates in favour of working with States, to build their capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes, including through strengthening constitutional and legal protections. 

In commemorating the Rwandan tragedy, we should also celebrate that Rwandan society has taken bold steps towards reconciliation.  In the past twenty years, Rwandans have maintained a stable society, and have made major strides in economic development.  This dark chapter of history should, however, never be forgotten.  Australia is ready to help in generating the political will that is needed to ensure the phrase ‘Never Again’ is guaranteed.

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