Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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?

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones