15 March 2004

The most prominent French magistrate, Judge Jean-Louis Brugiere accused the U.N. Secretariat of withholding evidence -- the black box of an aircraft that crashed on April 6, 1994, killing the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, preceding the infamous massacre of over 800,000 people. And the most prestigious French daily international stature, Le Monde, reported the story on Tuesday, 9 March and demanded: "Do justice, establish the facts, and tell the truth." Caught off-guard during an official visit to Canada, Kofi Annan -- who was directly responsible for peacekeeping at the time -- expressed surprise at the French charge. He told the press there that he was not aware of any black box, adding "I really don't understand the basis of the observations which I read in the papers."

Similarly in New York, the meticulously professional Spokesman Fred Eckhard said the U.N. had no knowledge about the black box, although a former employee claimed he reached the site, picked up the box and mailed it to New York. He continued that peacekeepers were barred from where the plane crashed.

On Thursday, 11 March -- a day after the denial -- it was announced that "a black box" was found in a locked file cabinet and was "sent to experts to analyze its contents." It was claimed that the officer who had sent it "never informed senior officials of its existence." That sounded like the same approach used when a video by UNIFIL on missing Israeli soldiers in South Lebanon was claimed to have never reached the attention of senior officials at Headquarters. In that case, the obliging Joachim Hutter took the blame. In this one, Robert Lambo, the air safety specialist with the Rwanda mission at the time, does not seem equally accommodating. He is speaking, it seems, to the French judge. And it is not just any judge. Justice Brugiere had handled some of the most sensitive international cases, like the bombings of UTA flight for which Libya agreed to pay compensation, investigating Carlos "the Jackal," and a number of notorious cases which earned an aura of high responsibility and credible integrity. That was why Le Monde added in its comment: "The U.N. did not want to know what happened on April 6, 1994, at the risk of being disqualified from judging the genocide that took place over the next 100 days."

By coincidence, the charge was published while Kofi Annan was in Canada. It was a Canadian Officer heading the U.N. team in Kigali who first raised awkward questions about lack of response from New York -- especially over weekends or after 6 p.m. A detailed article in the New Yorker mentioned, among others, an emergency signal sent to Headquarters. A book entitled "We Regret to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Die," makes interesting reading. When the questions persisted, current Chef de Cabinet of the current Secretary-General -- and his deputy in peacekeeping at the time -- took the flak saying that he did not pass the cable to Kofi Annan.

Back in New York, and after re-admitting the black box, Annan responded to press questions following a Security Council luncheon by saying he was surprised to find a black box "much less in the building" (where else?). He dismissed the matter as "a foul up -- a first class foul up." A reporter asked:

Question: You or Mr. [Iqbal] Riza, who just left the scene [inaudible], and you were director of peace-keeping then -- had you any information about what happened to the "black box" from that plane crash?

Annan: Absolutely not, absolutely none of it. In fact, as I said, I was as surprised as anybody to know that there was a "black box" here.

Question: Are you struck by Rwanda again? If it's not a cable, it's the genocide, the U.N. connection; it just seems to be a trail that never ends, it seems, as the anniversary approaches.

Annan: Well, as I said, I am as surprised as everybody that we have this.

Question: Are you going to form another panel to investigate this one?

Annan: I will let you chair it. [laughter]

Alright. Laughter, for now. Suddenly finding "a black box" and sending it "to experts to analyze its contents" after denying its existence may persuade an accommodating reporter to leave the story alone. For a determined judge, and an articulate newspaper, it may be a different story. The box did not contain an outdated telephone directory. It related to a notorious crash that killed two presidents, preceded a prolonged scene of massacres, seriously embarrassed the United Nations, and changed the geopolitics of that region. It was sent by a responsible officer, the Rwandan air safety specialist. Coming as it did from the scene of an infamous crime, anyone receiving it in New York would have certainly been curious -- to say the least about its contents. Experienced peacekeeping staff know better than to casually lock it up in a forgotten file cabinet rather than passing it upwards and then upwards again. With passage of time more, possibly much more, would be known. A Pandora box was opened in Paris, however slightly. As they say in Casablanca, this may be the beginning of an interesting relationship.