UNITED NATIONS -- The Canadian military officer who was in charge of peacekeeping operations in Rwanda in the months preceding -- and then during -- an unprecedented massacre 20 years ago said Tuesday that the world ignored the credible threat of genocide and failed Rwanda's people as the country erupted in violence.
"We deliberately decided not to be involved," said Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian senator who was a lieutenant general at the time, calling the inaction in Rwanda that led to as many as 1 million deaths a "catastrophic failure." He added that to the extent that the world's major powers, such as the United States, France, Britain, China and Russia, decided to get involved it was done inexpensively with ineffective methods of the Cold War era.
World powers declined to call the deliberate murdering of members of an ethnic group on a massive scale genocide, and nations began withdrawing their troops and citizens from the country as the situation devolved.
Even the UN force that Dallaire commanded was reduced from thousands to hundreds.
Dallaire spoke at UN headquarters in Manhattan as part of a panel including Rwanda's ambassador to the UN, Eugène-Richard Gasana, and Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, in Manhattan.
The United Nations and Rwanda will commemorate the genocide in events running through April, when the bloodshed began two decades ago.
"The commemoration is an important occasion to remember the lives that were lost, show solidarity with survivors and recommit ourselves to the promise of 'never again' in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world," Gasana said.
Adams said, "History has judged the United Nations very harshly for its inaction in Rwanda and we must learn the lessons of the past."
The panel, "Genocide: A Preventable Crime -- Understanding Early Warning of Mass Atrocities," took place near the 20th anniversary of what has famously become known as the "genocide fax."
That has become the name of the document that Dallaire sent to UN headquarters in early January 1994 that all but predicted attacks on the minority Tutsi population on a wide scale as tensions between Tutsis and Hutus reached a fever pitch.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwanda's president, Juvenal Habyarimana, was shot down as he returned from a peace conference, killing him and Burundi's president, Cyprian Ntayamira -- an event that touched off a wave of violence against Tutsis and their Hutu sympathizers. Many were tracked down in house-to-house searches and hacked to death with machetes by mobs of their own neighbors and, in some cases, relatives. Churches and sports stadiums became slaughterhouses.
Ordinary citizens, even children, were forced to participate in the violence and to reveal the whereabouts of Tutsis, egged on by propagandistic announcements broadcast over the radio labeling Tutsis, among other things, "cockroaches" that should be exterminated.
Estimates on the number of people killed in the 100-day genocide range from 700,000 to 1 million.
All the while, Dallaire and his small band of UN peacekeepers witnessed the atrocities but were ordered not to intervene. Dallaire chronicled his observances in a book titled "Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda." The memoir carries a foreword by Samantha Power, the current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
"We have the responsibility, through the UN, to intervene," Dallaire said. "We've been given the tools to fight impunity in the field, not just in the courts afterwards."
He referred to the 2005 "responsibility to protect" measures adopted at the UN, which allows the world body to more quickly intervene when a state implodes in violence, particularly when state-sponsored violence is directed at its own citizens.
"The onus is on every sovereign state that makes up this UN," Dallaire said.