UNITED NATIONS — UN officials, career diplomats and statesmen in capitals and missions worldwide paused Thursday to reflect on the genesis of a massacre 22 years ago that took the lives of between 800,000 and 1 million people in a genocidal 100-day rampage on the Tutsi minority in Rwanda.
“In 1994, more than 800,000 people were systematically murdered throughout Rwanda,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a message of remembrance of the victims. “The vast majority were Tutsi, but moderate Hutu, Twa and others were also targeted. On this day, we remember all who perished in the genocide and renew our resolve to prevent such atrocities from ever being repeated anywhere in the world.”
He delivered the message four days before the UN’s official commemoration of the slaughter, which some observers and UN officials cite as one of the world body’s most colossal failures, because it failed to intervene as neighbors set upon neighbors in small bands of extremists — called the Interahamwe — who went house to house hunting down friends and even relatives to hack to death.
Whole families, even infants, were slaughtered en masse on roads throughout the country of about 7 million people in fields, churches and soccer stadiums.
The role of hateful propaganda broadcast over the airwaves and in newspapers — Tutsi were derided continually as cockroaches leading up to the start of the massacre — has been cited by scholars as central to the pace and brutality of the campaign. It lasted 100 days and ended after the mostly Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front, led by Rwanda’s current President Paul Kagame, quelled the violence after re-entering the country from Uganda, where it had been regrouping in exile.
The bloodletting began after April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, and Burundi’s president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was shot down, killing both Hutu men and everyone else on board. Tutsis were blamed by Hutus for downing the plane and launched the killings. International response was anemic, at best, with the UN withdrawing nearly 2,000 troops as killings continued. After evacuating Westerners, the UN left a tiny, ineffective force of about 270 troops in place.
Since 2005, the UN has hosted the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.
“The theme of this year’s observance is Fighting Genocide Ideology,” Ban continued. “It is essential that governments, the judiciary and civil society stand firm against hate speech and those who incite division and violence. We must promote inclusion, dialogue and the rule of law to establish peaceful and just societies.”
The rampage led to the establishment of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which indicted 93 people including military and government officials, politicians, businessmen, clergy, militia, and media leaders, and sentenced 61 for serious violations of international humanitarian law. The Tanzania-based court, founded in 1995, was the first “international tribunal to hold members of the media responsible for broadcasts intended to inflame the public to commit acts of genocide.”
On his Twitter account, Kagame said those who had not taken responsibility for their roles in the genocide were on the wrong side of history.
“What happened 22 years ago is never easy to comprehend, but today Rwandans and other people of good will remember and honour lives lost,” he tweeted.
Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said “For Rwandans, the anguish and pain of what they experienced during the dark months of 1994 is something they have carried with them every minute of every day since.”
Power wrote a book analyzing the Rwanda genocide and other international conflicts. She also penned a foreword to a memoir by then-Major General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN mission at the time, a force that was shrunk down to a token level by the UN Security Council because of political pressure from the UN’s most powerful countries.
She added: “Today, we stand with our Rwandan brothers and sisters in their enduring grief and pain. We continue to tell the history of the unspeakable abuses they suffered, and to condemn all those who deny or downplay the genocide that took place. We recommit ourselves to the unfinished work of accountability, healing and reconciliation.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “We grieve for those innocent lives lost, for the families and friends who will forever cherish them, and for the survivors who suffer as both victims and witnesses to one of the most unspeakable acts of evil of our lifetime. . . . The history of Rwanda teaches us an essential lesson: While the capacity for the deepest evil resides in all societies, so too do the qualities of understanding, generosity and reconciliation.”