Twenty years after the Rwanda genocide where the “consequences of failing to heed the warning signs were monumentally horrifying” the world must respond early to the risk of mass atrocities amid mounting religious and ethnic polarisation, a UN special event this month warned.
“We must never forget the collective failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide,” Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said at the world body’s New York headquarters.
The event, called “Understanding early warning of mass atrocities 20 years after the genocide in Rwanda”, is part of the run-up to the anniversary of the horrific killings that started on April 7, 1994. In a 100 day period more than 800 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred by Hutu militants.
Retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who was head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda at that time, told the event he had appealed “in vain” for the world to take action before it was too late.
“If we are to prevent future tragedies, progress requires leadership and courage to speak out at every level – the kind of leadership and the kind of courage Dallaire showed 20 years ago. It requires action by governments to uphold their fundamental responsibilities and by the international community when that does not happen.
“As never before the people of the world are measuring the performance of the UN by our efforts to protect human rights and civilian populations,” Eliasson said.
He stressed the importance of the role civil society in preventing atrocities, improvements within the UN, including the “responsibility to protect” concept endorsed in 2005 and the commitment of individuals, including UN staff in the field, who are providing early warning and supporting local and national efforts to protect human rights and stop conflicts from escalating.
“As a result, the UN and the international system are now better prepared to anticipate, prevent and, I would strongly hope, respond to crises. We need look no further than South Sudan today for an example of dedication and innovation in protecting people.”
He pointed out the lessons learned over the years have not always been followed by action.
“Since the tragedy in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of people have died in mass atrocities and tens of millions have been displaced. Over the last few weeks alone men, women and children have been slaughtered not only in South Sudan but also in the Central African Republic (CAR) and in the nightmare of Syria.”
The wider impact of the slaughter has been “disastrous” for peace, security and the economic and social development of entire regions.
“This is all the more so because of the deeply worrying and growing divisions along religious or ethnic lines we are witnessing in many nations.
“The demonization – I use the word intentionally – of people of different faiths or ethnic groupings is one of the most toxic deeds of which human beings are capable. It undermines the fundamental principle that must be at the heart of human interaction – and in fact of the UN – the incontrovertible truth of every human being’s equal value.
“When people are killed or violated in the name of religion, race or ethnicity, everybody’s humanity is diminished. We are all brutalised – victims and perpetrators as well as bystanders.”