Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, made a hurried and unexpected visit to Kigali last week to persuade Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, not to carry out a threat to withdraw all Rwandan peacekeepers from UN duty – including troops protecting civilians in Darfur. The UN delegation would be well aware of the security council’s shameful decision to pull its peacekeepers out of Rwanda in 1994, at the height of the genocide of the Tutsi people. It was Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front that eventually brought the genocide to an end.
A withdrawal of Rwandan troops would cripple UN efforts in Darfur. But it would be wrong to underestimate the Kagame threat, for it comes in a furious response to a leaked UN draft report that suggests that this same Rwandan army may itself have committed genocide in the course of a “relentless pursuit” of Hutu refugees in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo from 1996 to 1998. There is a note of caution in the report: the accusation is “unresolved” and can only be decided by a court. But the terrible irony of the use of the “g” word in relation to Rwandan troops was lost on no one.
Although the accusations against Rwanda are not particularly new, what is significant is that they are contained in a UN report which has taken several years to prepare. The Mapping Exercise, as it was called, was created in 2007 and began its work a year later. It was intended to provide an inventory of the most serious human rights abuses between 1993 and 2003, identifying potential leads and sources of information for further investigations should trials follow.
In its 500 pages it describes more than 600 serious violations by perpetrators from the armies of Burundi, Uganda, Angola, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Congolese rebel groups, and Rwandan Hutu Power génocidaires. It was, however, the allegation against the Rwandan army that drew the most media attention.
Even as Ban Ki-moon was expressing his disappointment at the leak, Rwanda’s foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, was calling the report “insane”, “fatally flawed” and “irresponsible”. She reminded reporters how the UN had “deliberately turned its back on the Rwandan people” in 1994.
Whoever leaked this document was distracting attention from another abject UN failure when, only days before in Congo’s North Kivu province, rebels – including remnants of Hutu Power forces responsible for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi – had systematically gang-raped hundreds of women and children. Atul Khare, the deputy head of UN peacekeeping, later admitted that the UN’s forces in the DRC had failed.
The trial of strength between the UN and Rwanda has led to rumours that the final report on the DRC – due for publication on 1 October – will eventually be amended. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, has apparently been asked to conduct a legal review of the report’s use of the word genocide before publication. Pillay has promised in the foreword that the people of the DRC would find justice and pledged the help of her office in what would be “an important journey towards a truly sustainable peace” – with the “support of the international community”.
The story of what happened in Congo remains massively incomplete. It is inappropriate, or so the Belgian journalist Colette Braeckman wrote last week, to simply blame African states. Braeckman, an expert in the region, says the Congo wars have depended upon tolerance and compromise within the UN security council. They have also depended on the exploitation of mineral reserves and the defence of foreign investment – they are about wealth and influence in Africa.
Braeckman discloses how at one stage the Hutu Power forces in the DRC had received military assistance from Serbian mercenaries hired by the French. She includes a startling claim that the US had provided satellite intelligence to Rwandan forces in order to show the location of Hutu refugees in sprawling forests.
The 1994 genocide and the subsequent massive exodus of more than one million Rwandans – the “Hutu nation”, as one military leader called them – into the neighbouring DRC contributed to the destabilisation of an entire region. There have been 16 years of war, human deprivation, rape and misery, with untold and unimaginable brutality, and an incalculable number of victims. It is not over.
Linda Melvern, an investigative journalist and author who worked for several years at the Evening Standard and at the Sunday Times, including on the latter’s Insight team.