Heeding the Lessons of the Rwandan Genocide

Many countries, Canada included, abdicated their responsibility to respond to the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. We must never let that happen again, says Kyle Matthews.

By: /
7 April, 2014
By: Kyle Matthews
Executive director, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies

Two decades ago, in a remote corner of Africa, far from the eyes of the western media, a massacre was unleashed like no other in modern times.

Within 100 days of violence, an estimated 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda.

Roméo Dallaire, now a senator, led the UN peacekeeping force when the genocide began. While he did everything in his power to protect Rwandans, many countries disregarded their legal responsibility to take action as signatories of the Genocide Convention.

Those responsible for the Rwandan genocide are of course the Rwandans who planned and implemented a nearly successful extermination of the ethnic Tutsi minority. The 20th anniversary offers an opportunity to dispel the myth that knowledge of the genocide did not penetrate the executive branch of government in national capitals across the globe.

Many historians and human rights activists have been critical of how western governments stood on the sidelines in 1994. Much of the blame is directed at the U.S. for not supporting the UN peacekeeping force.

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton has always remained tight-lipped about Rwanda. At a public speaking engagement in Toronto in 2009, Clinton was caught off guard when asked by Frank McKenna why he didn’t do more to help Rwanda. “It’s one of the two or three things I regret most about my presidency. By the time we thought of doing something about it, it was over… I don’t think we could have saved 800,000 lives [in Rwanda] but I think I might have saved 250,000 to 400,000. And that’s something I have to live with for the rest of my life.” Clinton responded emotionally.

While the U.S. bears the brunt of much criticism because it held a seat on the UN Security Council and had the military capacity to respond, attention needs to be directed at other countries who abdicated their responsibility. Canada is no exception.

In 2009 the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies released a policy report that demonstrated the official narrative that Ottawa “did not know” what was taking place in Rwanda was more fiction than fact.

Former leader of the NDP, Ed Broadbent, as president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, travelled to Rwanda two years before the genocide took place. He was troubled by the hate speech being broadcast by local radio stations in Kigali against the Tutsi minority and upon his return met with officials at External Affairs to press the Canadian government to do something. No evidence was found that Ottawa acted on these early warning signs of genocide.

Canadian aid continued to flow into Rwanda and the country never received a diplomatic scolding. Another year passed before Canada offered up Dallaire to the UN in 1993. External Affairs did not share Broadbent’s warnings with the Department of National Defence.

Once the genocide began in April 1994 Canada moved one aircraft that was serving the UN operations in the Balkans to help ferry supplies between Nairobi and Kigali. Robert Fowler, deputy minister of Defence at the time, followed the situation closely and was the only high level Western official to travel to Rwanda in the midst of the crisis, visiting in mid-May. Upon returning to Ottawa he wrote a memo urging for a change in government policy and warned Canada’s inaction would be “irrelevant to the historians who chronicle the near-elimination of a tribe while the white world’s accountants count and foreign policy specialists machinate.”

The document eventually made its way to the Lester B. Pearson building where a deputy minister wrote across the first page of the memo in red ink “not in Canada’s national interest.” This terminated any possibility of Canadian leadership.

While Rwanda looms large in our national psyche because of Dallaire and his personal story of not giving up in the face of great odds, the simple fact is that Canada, like many other countries, abandoned Rwanda in its greatest hour of need.

The international community failed in protecting Rwandans because of the actions of national governments. While real progress has been made since with the creation of the International Criminal Court and the advancement of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, largely in part due to Canadian leadership, much more needs to be done. Last week, foreign affairs minister John Baird spoke at the International Conference on the Prevention of Genocide in Brussels and reminded everyone in attendance that “states have a solemn duty to defend the vulnerable, challenge aggressors, protect human rights and promote human dignity, both at home and abroad.”

If Canada is serious about heeding the lessons of the Rwandan genocide and becoming an international leader in making “never again” a reality, then it must communicate to Canadians the importance of strengthening national and internationals mechanisms that improve global governance and protect human rights. It is the least we can do to honour genocide and mass atrocity survivors everywhere.

A version of this post was published by the Ottawa Citizen.

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