20 years later, Rwandan genocide echoes Syria bloodbath

Nothing was done for Rwanda then, nothing is done for Syria now

Yossi Mekelberg
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Twenty years have passed since the world witnessed both in horror and haplessness as a genocide unfolded in Rwanda.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred brutally by Hutu forces. They showed no mercy for women, children or the elderly. Rape was used as a weapon of war against women, houses were burnt down and entire communities were destroyed.


Equipped mainly with machetes, the assailants mowed down their victims with unconceivable speed and brutality. Within three months they spread destruction around this tiny country in one of the worst genocides since the end of the Second World War.


Last week’s commemoration ceremonies marked the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, providing an occasion to reflect on the failure of the international community in preventing the genocide. Some in positions of power at the time were courageous enough to admit some responsibility.

Nevertheless, not many alluded to the tragic irony that while atoning for past mistakes, so little has been done to prevent atrocities or bring perpetrators of horrendous crimes against humanity to justice in other places, such as Darfur, the Central African Republic, the DRC and of course Syria.

The U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, paying his respect in the official commemoration ceremony for the 800,000 victims of the Rwandan genocide, stressed the “need for greater collective resolve to ensure that genocide is consigned, once and for all, to history.”

However, it was actually the former Permanent Representative of New Zealand, Colin Keating, who at the time of the genocide in April 1994 held the presidency of the Security Council, who was brave enough during the commemoration to acknowledge that the United Nations failed both to recognize that genocide was taking place against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and to reinforce the U.N. peacekeeping mission there in order to protect innocent civilians.

Hindsight is 20/20

Weeks after there was already sufficient evidence that genocide was taking place, the Security Council still stuck to a view that events in Rwanda were no more than a resurgence of the civil war, rather than the systematic killing of innocent people whose only crime was belonging to another ethnic group.

rwanda soldier
rwanda soldier

Despite the denials at the time by the U.N. and the U.S. that they had no intelligence regarding the looming atrocities, it is well documented that the Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, Force Commander of the U.N. peacekeeping mission for Rwanda, sent what became known as the “Genocide Fax.”

In the fax he warned the U.N. headquarters in New York about darkening political skies in the country, which might lead to severe ethnic conflict.

Warning of a possible large-scale ethnic conflict was also present in CIA reports, but no one in the higher echelons of decision making in the Clinton administration, either understood the depth of the pending crisis, or wanted to intervene in another civil war. This was especially true in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic Operation Hope in Somalia.

The ongoing massacre has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 Syrians. Many thousands have been tortured beyond recognition, and the civilian population has been deliberately shelled and starved through siege. Despite this long list of brutalities, last week was the first time that a permanent member of the Security Council, France, began a process which might end in referring the Syrian government to the ICC.

Yossi Mekelberg

The Rwandan genocide left a shameful legacy for the international community, due not only to their inability to prevent the genocide in the first place, but also to their excruciatingly slow response to it, which enabled a 100 day orgy of ethnic killing. This was the fastest unfolding genocide in history.

Samantha Power in her seminal book on genocide A Problem from Hell, quotes Bill Clinton during his Rwanda visit as admitting, “We in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred.”

He asserted that this was due to lack of understanding the depth and speed of the horrific events. Hardly a convincing explanation from a world leader, though at least he rightly conceded his own ineptitude, and that of the rest of the international community.

Rwanda’s long journey of healing the ethnic wounds is far from being complete. Following the failure to prevent or at least halt the genocide, Rwanda had to embark, with international help, on a long and painful process of rehabilitation and reconstruction, as well as bringing the perpetrators of the genocide to justice.

However, based on what has occurred in similar situations elsewhere in the world since then, it seems that the international community has learnt very little, or cares very little, about preventing mass atrocities. Syria no doubt is a case in point.

syria dead
syria dead

A dire déjà vu

The slow painful crushing of the Syrian people in more than three years of civil war exposed a part of the international community which appears to be out of their depth in responding to this situation. At the same time some international elements continue to fuel the civil war and make it worse.

Unlike Rwanda, the civil war in Syria is not regarded as a genocide because U.N. 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines the crime of genocide “…as an attempt at extermination through acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, racial, ethnical, or religious group.”

What transpires from Syria might not amount to an act of genocide, but horrendous war crimes and crimes against humanity have indeed taken place on a large scale nevertheless. Most of these crimes have been committed by the Bashar al-Assad regime, though also to a lesser degree by the opposition.

Since the beginning of the war the ongoing massacre has claimed the lives of more than 150,000 Syrians. More than half of the population has been forced to leave home, becoming internally displaced or refugees. Many thousands have been tortured beyond recognition, and the civilian population has been deliberately shelled and starved through siege.

Despite this long list of brutalities, last week was the first time that a permanent member of the Security Council, France, began a process which might end in referring the Syrian government to the ICC.

rwanda refugees
rwanda refugees
syria refu
syria refu

Richard Dicker, the director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program correctly pointed out that, “For victims in Syria who have known nothing but suffering, despair and abandonment, the ICC would open up the hope of justice and redress.”

Moreover, he also echoed what Samantha Power asserted regarding Rwanda that, “… holding those who have carried out mass atrocities accountable is at times our best tool to prevent future atrocities.” In other words, this can be not only a tool in punishing the Syrian regime, but also a tool in deterring it from continuing to slaughter their own people.

Divisions, ineptness and vested interests within the international community have thus far crippled any genuine attempt to bring to an end the Syrian conflict, and the horrific bloodshed there.

Honoring the memory of the victims of genocide and of other crimes against humanity, including those in Syria, can become meaningful only if the Security Council and the U.N. system can translate regrets of past failures into concrete actions. The world failed Rwanda 20 years ago, and it presently fails Syria.

It is high time for the international community to act in Syria in order to stop the killings and the destruction of the country.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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