25 April 2004

The most pathetic attempt to spin what happened in Rwanda during a tenth anniversary commemoration was the unsuccessful attempt to spin away responsibility, particularly by some officials at the time. A member of the Security Council blatantly claimed that he and his colleagues were "basking in ignorance." The most unabashed try was by former Foreign Minister of Canada, Lloyd Axworthy, who was recently added to Club 71 of special envoys. After a solemn impressive march by U.N. staff (which he did not attend), the newly appointed envoy for Eritrea and Ethiopia participated in a roundtable about Rwanda chaired by his compatriot, Canada's U.N. representative in 1994 and current Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette. The claim he made that it was only months later that he realized what actually happened reflected total disregard for anyone's intelligence. After all, it was a Canadian General, Romeo Dallaire, who had forewarned everyone to the potential massacres. And not just once or twice, but for several days and in numerous phone calls and faxes. For a Canadian official, a senior U.N. Peacekeeping official, or a member of the Security Council to claim otherwise is nonsense.

By now the preliminary facts are ascertained beyond doubt. In early 1994, General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian U.N. Force Commander in Kigali, sent a fax to senior Peacekeeping officials in New York, alerting them to a plot to prepare for massacres by first provoking, then killing U.N. Belgian peacekeepers in order to enforce their withdrawal and neutralize U.N. troops. The informant, whom the General said was highly placed, well informed and reliable, was willing to identify the caches of arms in return for passports and protection of his family. The General indicated he was taking preventive action within 36 hours. He did not request permission. Those in N.Y. could have had deniability if he failed -- they would have been off the hook and he alone would be blamed. However, on behalf of Kofi Annan, then head of Peacekeeping, his then deputy, now his Chef de Cabinet, Mr. Iqbal Riza instructed the General not to take "such risks outside his mandate." He was to "avoid escalation" and to notify the Rwandan President (some of his influential aides were among those planning the massacres!), as well as Western Ambassadors. The General pleaded by telephone and fax (five faxes in three days). "If we don't grab these weapons they will be used against us." He reported that he was "drowning" in information about death squad target lists including U.N. troops warning of "catastrophic consequences (fax dated 23 February 1994). As Samantha Power pointed out in her book "A Problem from Hell," quoting one of the General's aides: The attitude (from Peacekeeping in New York) was scolding. It was like "Shut up. You're a soldier. Let the experts handle this." But within weeks, continued Powers, the "experts" had vanished and Dallaire was on his own.

In brief, everyone knew what was happening every day. Only most of them refused to admit it was genocide. They were hairsplitting in search of other definitions.

Ten years after the fact, the U.N. leadership's response seemed tired, hesitant and unconvincing. To explain, or not to explain; to invoke Somalia or to cast doubt on information sent by the U.N. Commanding officer; to attend the commemoration in Kigali or not to attend; or maybe seize a human rights opportunity in Geneva and send the most credible African in that case to Kigali (a good choice). While world media from Le Monde to Public Television to the Washington Post was revisiting the issue, there was no thrust in the U.N. Secretariat drive. Regrettably, Secretary General Kofi Annan, a natural with television, did not seem well prepared -- nor should he have been left alone.