15 APRIL 2009


The U.N. Department of Public Information did what it had to do, effectively and appropriately.

Ironically, however, speakers commemorating the 15th Anniversary of Rwanda massacres represented governments vulnerable to questioning about indiscriminate killing of civilians at one time or another. We will not go into details, unless questioned. But let's say that even Rwanda itself has been accused of supporting murderous practices, most recently in the nearby Congo, while supporting General Nkunda. In a macabre twist, another Rwandan General accused by a Spanish judge of committing massacres has been serving as Deputy Commander of U.N. troops in Darfur, yes DARFUR, upon insistence of his own government as supported by outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (contrary to advice by State Department experts) and covered by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The Libyan delegate ostensibly representing Africa, who came late and murmured incoherently about the need to educate children certainly needs more education about genocide and murdering civilians like innocent passengers of a PanAm 747. The General Assembly President, our holier than thou defrocked priest, represented the Sandinistas who, like their other Nicaraguan adversaries, would rather have their former "revolutionary" tactics overlooked. While the Jewish people have the sympathy of the world for suffering horribly through the major holocast, the Israeli government represented by Ambassador Shalev is undergoing at last three investigations over Gaza: one by its own army, one by the U.N. Human Rights Council, and a third by the U.N. Secretariat headed by Ian Martin.

All that is being mentioned not to direct accusations but to point out the need to recognize a shared responsibility, adopt clearer criteria and apply mutual disciplinary measures. No impunity for any party, a motto that needs to apply universally.

It is also important to stress that the commemoration was required, indeed very necessary to hold at this time, mainly to stress an awareness and recognition by the international community that unacceptable terrible massacres took place 15 years ago -- and to stress a determination on the sanctity of human dignity and safety of human life.

Initially, the Secretary General was not expected to attend. A printed program circulated to those flocking to the Trusteeship Council Chamber indicated that Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro will be lighting the candles and making remarks.

Rightly, the Secretary General showed up. After songs by Rwandan artist Marie Claudine Mukamabeno, he joined Rwanda's ambassador and his family in lighting the candles. Ambassador Joseph Nsengimana seemed more practiced in pistol lighting; it took Ban Ki-moon several tries. Sister Asha-Rose just sat in the forefront, solemn and silent. She comes from nearby Tanzania, the land where Muallimu Julius Nyrere propelled human dignity to the top of Africa's international policy.

Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka moderated while his staff team, headed by Director Paula Refolo, coordinated the event. General Assembly President, Miguel d'Escoto Brockman, a California-raised Nicaraguan Sandinista, hugged U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and Israeli Ambassador Shalev. A seat at the podium was empty until Libyan delegate Ibrahim Dabbashi, who had the longest title showed up to make the shortest speech -- and the least coherent; he fibbed that he was just informed about his participation while his name was there in print as "Deputy Permanent Representative of the Socialist Libyan Arab Jamahirya to the United Nations, representing the Chairperson of the African Union."

The most vibrant statement was made by the United States Ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice. Gracious and deliberate, she spoke not only on behalf of her country but obviously from the heart. Rwanda "suffered from modern demagogues, those who were willing to kill in the warped name of ethnic difference, from those who saw division and death as a path to power." She blamed the international community "and individual governments -- including my own -- that failed to act in the face of a vast unfolding evil." Ms. Rice, who worked at the Clinton White House National Security Council at the time, described a visit six months after the massacre. "I'll never forget the horror," she added, her voice almost breaking with emotion. The enthusiastic sustained applause she received not only reflected approval of her position, but also appreciation that the Permanent Representative of a major power could blend personal human feeling while conveying official policy.

After readings of survivors' testimonies, two exhibits were opened: "Visions of Rwanda" produced by the Department of Public Information, and "Intended Consequences," a set of photos and interviews by Jonathan Torgovnik.

The Secretary General looked visibly moved. When massacres were being described, Ban Ki-moon seemed to mutter to himself at times, holding his head down -- and possibly his tears back. In his forceful speech, he said he had cried during a visit to Kigali and vowed that such genocide should never be allowed to happen again. (His statement is reproduced under a special headline.)

To prove his determination, Ban Ki-moon stated that he had designated Professor Francis Deng as Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide and appointed Professor Luck as Special Adviser on Responsibility to Protect. He added: "That is a firm demonstration of my philosophy and commitment to do all I can to prevent this type of tragedy." Well. Good luck to Ed Luck. But if Secretary General Ban wanted to reassure us on his "philosophy" (his commitment was never in doubt), then Professor Deng will only add to the confusion. The former Sudanese diplomat, a highly regarded academician in certain Washington circles, had been Special Adviser to Secretary General Annan on Displaced Persons for years and hardly did anything beyond reiterating the Secretary General's statements. Having done very little indeed to stand up for his own people in Darfur at the time, he could be hardly expected to take on the horribly complex brutal issues of Genocide.

Although the 15th anniversary was very properly marked at United Nations Headquarters, the main question is whether substantive lessons were learned. The question applied not only to U.N.-based staff and diplomats who already have answers, but to opportunist politicians and military activists who have their own cynical calculations. Darfur and the Congo are only a few nearby examples. Just look at the headlines.