Rwanda's lessons yet to be learned
Rwanda's lessons yet to be learned
A Dangerous Escalation in the Great Lakes
A Dangerous Escalation in the Great Lakes
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Rwanda's lessons yet to be learned

AT A MOMENT during the forthcoming film "Hotel Rwanda" when all hope for a meaningful international response to the 1994 genocide seems lost, the main character Paul Rusesabagina proclaims, "We must shame them into helping." Nothing else had worked. Pictures, pleas, facts, international conventions, and United Nations resolutions all had produced a cowardly retreat by a world unwilling to stand up to evil.

The point of such a scene and such a film is not just to document the story of what happened so that we can understand it better. It is much more about the future, so that the overused phrase "Never Again" might one day have some shred of meaning, some shred of truth.

The future is now. In Congo and Sudan, unspeakable atrocities are being committed in the context of civil wars which have taken the lives of approximately six million people. The parallels of this modern-day holocaust to 1994's genocide in Rwanda are stark. Militias are doing most of the killing. Specific ethnic groups are targeted and inter-communal rivalries are stoked by governments. Hardliners are threatened by peace processes and commit crimes against humanity to promote instability.

The similarities in the international response to Rwanda then and to Congo and Sudan now are equally haunting. Lines of responsibility for war crimes continue to be muddied, in order to avoid making tough political choices about intervention or confrontation. Observing cease-fires that don't really exist are still favored over the application of real force or sanctions against the perpetrators.

Deadlines and warnings continue to be issued, with little consequence. Humanitarian Band-Aids remain our tool of choice, as we cite the millions of dollars in food aid we send to exonerate ourselves for not intervening to protect people from being murdered.

The failure to act forcefully in Sudan and Congo highlights how little progress the world has made since the events of 1994. These debacles also remind us that the world body chargged with leading the response to crises of this kind -- the United Nations Security Council -- remains unwilling or unable to confront the perpetrators of mass atrocities in the world's peripheral zones. Divisions within the Security Council over whether to act remain huge, and the divisions themselves become an excuse for inaction.

The main difference, however, between 1994 and today is that we still have time to act to help save lives in Congo and Sudan. Millions of lives. The death tolls have mounted in slow motion in Congo and Sudan compared to Rwanda, where 800,000 were killed in a hundred days, the fastest rate of killing in recorded history. It is not too late to act.

Let's go back to the lessons of the Rwandan genocide. It was perpetrated with ease by the Rwandan government and its militias because there was no accountability for the killing and no protection for the targets. These two ingredients -- accountability and protection -- are precisely what are missing from today's response in Congo and Sudan.

First, accountability. The message needs to be sent to the perpetrators and orchestrators of the killing that the days of impunity are over. That can be accomplished through a number of tools: international prosecution for war crimes, arms embargos, travel bans, and asset freezes, all focused on those that are most responsible.

Second, protection. When a government abdicates its responsibility to protect its own citizens, then all international efforts must go toward protecting those people. In both Sudan and Congo, international forces have been deployed to observe tenuous cease-fires. But the real problem is predatory militias (like the Sudan government-backed Janjaweed, or "devils on horseback") that prey upon civilians and carry out the political objectives of their patrons in nearby capitals.

The African Union force in Sudan and the UN force in Congo must both be greatly increased in size and have their mandates refocused on the protection of civilian life. To do that, the militias and their sponsors must be confronted. Leaving them free guarantees a continuation of the killing, and leaves the external forces with front row seats.

How the world responds to genocide and other crimes against humanity represents one of the greatest moral tests of our lifetime. Citizens all over the United States are mobilizing to tell our government that what is happening in Darfur is unacceptable. But that is only the beginning.

Let's remember Paul Rusesabagina's plea to shame the world into acting. Otherwise, just imagine the shame of 6 million more fresh graves.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
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Don Cheadle

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