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From bloodbath to whitewash

April 2004 is the tenth anniversary of the genocide that killed a million Rwandans. Mark Curtis describes Britain's role in the slaughter

March 1, 2004
4 min read

The invasion of Iraq and the Hutton report are two sides of the same coin: the former shows that policies are made by a tiny cabal of people who are close to the prime minister but impervious to public influence; the latter shows that this cabal is protected from serious accountability. Britain’s political system, clearly more totalitarian than democratic, can enable policy-makers to get away with murder; just look at the events in Rwanda 10 years ago.

Next month is the tenth anniversary of the genocide that killed a million people in Rwanda. There has been astounding silence on one aspect of the genocide: the culpability of British policy-makers.

A planned campaign of slaughter was launched by extremist Hutus in April 1994 to eliminate members of the Tutsi ethnic group and political opponents. Instead of beefing up its peace mission in Rwanda and giving it a stronger mandate to intervene, the UN Security Council decided to reduce the presence of UN troops from 2,500 to 270. This decision was a green light to the killers that indicated the UN would not intervene to stop them.

It was the British ambassador to the UN Sir David Hannay who proposed that the UN reduce its force; the US agreed. Both were concerned about a possible repetition of the events in Somalia seven months previously, when the UN peace mission had spiralled out of control. The Nigerian ambassador pointed out that tens of thousands of civilians were dying in Rwanda, and pleaded for UN reinforcements. But the US and Britain would not be swayed.

The Rwandan government was sitting on the security council at the time, as one of 10 non-permanent members. So, British and US policy was reported back to those directing the genocide.

General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN force in Rwanda, also pleaded for reinforcements. He later spoke of “inexcusable apathy by the sovereign states that made up the UN that [was] completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability”. Dallaire said: “My force was standing knee-deep in mutilated bodies, surrounded by the guttural moans of dying people, looking into the eyes of children bleeding to death with their wounds burning in the sun and being invaded by maggots and flies.”

The following month, with perhaps hundreds of thousands already dead, there was another UN proposal: to dispatch 5,500 troops to help stop the massacres. Once again, US and British pressure meant this deployment was delayed and given no mandate to use force to end the massacres. Furthermore, Downing Street and Washington also argued that before these troops could be deployed, there needed to be a ceasefire – even though one side was massacring innocent civilians. The Czech Republic’s ambassador to the UN compared the demand to “wanting Hitler to reach a ceasefire with the Jews”. He later said that British and US diplomats told him not to use such inflammatory language outside the security council. Dallaire believes that if these troops had been speedily deployed, tens of thousands more lives could have been saved.

Britain also went out of its way to prevent the UN using the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter in Rwanda. Otherwise, states would have been obliged to “prevent and punish” those responsible under the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. A year after the slaughter, the Foreign Office sent a letter to an international inquiry saying that it still did not accept the term genocide, describing discussion of the issue as “sterile”.

All this information is in the public domain and has been brilliantly pieced together by journalist Linda Melvern in her book A People Betrayed: the role of the West in Rwanda’s genocide. With Paul Williams of the University Birmingham, Melvern has just published the only academic analysis of Britain’s role in the slaughter in the journal African Affairs. The rest of the media and academia have been almost completely silent on the subject.

Parliament has never been too bothered, either. A House of Commons debate on the slaughter only took place two months after it had begun, and there have been no Parliamentary reports or even serious questions posed to the ministers involved (prime minister John Major, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind and overseas development minister Lynda Chalker).

Britain did more than turn a blind eye; Whitehall went out of its way to ensure the international community did not act sufficiently to prevent the genocide, and thousands more people died than would have done otherwise.

As with Hutton, Britain’s secretive and elitist political system continues to protect the policy-makers responsible. The public is not allowed even to have sufficient scrutiny over decision-making, let alone influence. Without fundamentally democratising policy-making, and discarding its totalitarian features, what future horrors lie in store?

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