Twenty years after the genocide, we have learnt nothing from Rwanda

When Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, the former UN force commander in Rwanda and now a Canadian senator, calls once again for urgent action to protect civilians at risk in an impoverished African country, one would expect the whole world to listen, particularly on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. You just could not divorce, he said, what is happening in the Central African Republic with what happened in Rwanda in 1994. "We've actually established a damn pecking order and the sub-Saharan black African – yes we're interested but it just doesn't count enough to spill our blood, to get embroiled in something complex that will need longer-term stability and influence," says Dallaire.

The similarities do seem impossible to ignore.

Raising awareness of a tiny African country today as she trudges around Whitehall is Oxfam's humanitarian policy adviser, Emma Fanning, who has recently returned from the Central African Republic. The UK has a vital role to play in the face of massive human suffering, she says. The country is in freefall, and unless action is taken now there will be regional instability for years to come. The current military deployment is totally insufficient, and African Union peacekeepers on the ground, who lack basic resources, are unable to ensure the protection of civilians.

In December there was said to be a "looming genocide". The EU has promised to send 1,000 troops, although the plan was reportedly delayed by Ukraine's uprising. The situation in this impoverished nation of 4.5 million worsens by the day. The country is teetering on the brink of a catastrophic disaster.

And so it was in Rwanda. The lack of any action contributed to the destabilisation of an entire region followed by years of human deprivation. All Dallaire had wanted in 1994 was 5,500 reinforcements to stand guard at places where desperate people were sheltering; this would have sent a clear signal to the machete-wielding Interahamwe militia that the world would not stand for their brutality.

"Those who were critical did not offer," Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary general who in 1994 was its head of peacekeeping operations, told me in July of that year. "The sceptical did not offer, and the silent did not offer. What choice did we have?"

The 20th commemoration of the genocide sees fine words spoken by all and it seems timely to reflect on why Rwanda was so quickly abandoned to its fate in 1994. There has never been a satisfactory explanation for the indifference over Rwanda. Western governments – the US, UK, Belgium, France – continue to withhold a wealth of information about events. Neither the US nor the UK, two permanent members of the UN security council, has ever answered accusations of a failure to abide by obligations under the 1948 genocide convention, nor revealed the information on which their decisions were based. The failure to critically examine the role of ministers and officials has further encouraged the sort of secretive and unaccountable decision-making that will no doubt shroud the decision-makers today and those who sit and read the cables.

With no official inquiry by either the US or the UK, blame for inaction over the genocide has simply slipped away from the officials and politicians responsible. This might be a suitable time to find out why the UK government was so determined in the security council that Dallaire's UN peacekeepers be withdrawn from Rwanda, leaving behind a "token force" in order to "appease public opinion" – not to protect civilians but to try to negotiate a ceasefire in the civil war.

Since 1994 there has been an almost continuous series of debates, studies and resolutions on the failure over Rwanda. These have shown how little true humanitarianism there is at the heart of states that both possess abundant resources and profess a commitment to human rights. Nothing has changed.

Linda Melvern is an investigative journalist and author.

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