From April 6, Rwanda will enter an annual period of remembrance to mark 27 years since the onset of the Genocide against the Tutsi, a horrific hundred-day orgy of violence, at the end of which more than one million people lay dead.
Popularly known as the Rwanda Genocide, the Genocide against the Tutsi came 45 years after the United Nations had enacted the Genocide Convention. Inspired by the Jewish Holocaust in which six million Jews were killed, the Convention was supposed to prevent a recurrence of such events by placing an obligation on member states intervene.
The more recent introduction of the International Criminal Court was supposed to ensure an international enforcement mechanism against man’s inhumanity to fellow man.
Yet events since the famous Nuremburg Trials, in which perpetrators of the holocaust were brought to justice, raise serious questions about the international system.
The Tutsi Genocide came just two decades after Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killed an estimated three million in Cambodia, and a year before the massacre of Srebrenica in which some 8,372 Bosnian Muslims were killed by a mainly-Christian Serb army.
While western powers were quick to militarily intervene in Serbia, this was motivated more by a desire to contain Russian influence; stopping the genocide was just a collateral benefit of the wider clash between the West and the East.
As Rwanda remembers the victims of an inglorious episode in its history, a genocide is likely unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Reports of the targeted killings of hundreds of Tigrayans by Eritrean troops during the ongoing civil conflict in the northwest of the country have elicited only a feeble rebuke from the United Nations.
It is not surprising. A United Nations peace keeping force was on the ground in Rwanda as the events leading to the massacres unfolded. It could neither prevent nor stop the genocide because of a dysfunctional international system that sent boots to Rwanda but denied them the mandate to do what they could have done.
The UN’s failure in Rwanda and other places is a mirror image of the conflicted nature of international jurisprudence. Countries are caught between surrendering aspects of their sovereignty to international actors on one hand and advancing the global human rights agenda on the other.
In domesticating the Genocide Convention, the permanent members of the UN Security Council largely defanged it by making national laws that either excused them from culpability if their own troops became involved in human rights abuses abroad or set a high standard for the declaration of a genocide.
The 27th Kwibuka should be a time for reflection on those past failures and how the international system can be made to work better. The Tutsi Genocide was preventable if the global community had put their minds to it.
Unless the world community becomes more united around a common human rights agenda and equitable system of crime and punishments, we shall witness yet more avoidable mass killings and empty recriminations afterwards.
The memory of the victims of the Tutsi and other genocides will best be served by the establishment of an effective global regime of crime and punishment for the perpetrators.