Our soldiers are needed

2013-04-09 00:00

AS many celebrated the decision to pull our troops out of the Central African Republic (CAR), the commemoration of the Rwanda genocide over the weekend served as a reminder that our soldiers will be needed in future. We should not stop caring. We cannot be selfish when Africa needs us.

Speaking over the weekend about the 19th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations secretary-general indicated that the UN and the international community are now better prepared to stop a similar tragedy from happening. I guess South Africa is also ready to send our soldiers into African countries where senseless mass murder might occur; as we should. The African Union is also better poised to marshal us into taking this duty, as with relative power comes responsibility.

In 1994, the UN Peacekeepers under the command of the Canadian officer Roméo Dallaire were ready to intervene in Rwanda, but the international community refused to change the mission mandate to enable them to stop this mayhem. Even when 1 000 Rwandans, who had hidden in a church, were killed mercilessly, the UN forces watched helplessly as their hands were tied by a restrictive mandate. They got involved once when they came under attack, just like South Africa’s soldiers were in CAR recently, from Hutu thugs baying for the blood of the prime minister they were protecting. Similarly outnumbered, they lost 11 Belgian soldiers, forcing Belgium to withdraw just as Pretoria did last week. But in this case, the UN surrendered to the thugs and gave up their weapons.

Belgium’s push for a change-of-mission mandate was resisted by other Security Council powers, with the United States in the lead. They wanted UN soldiers out of Rwanda at the time when the Rwandans needed them most. The Europeans sent troops in only to evacuate their nationals and refused to support the UN force. Africans and neighbouring states nearby failed dismally to demonstrate neighbourliness. The national army was actually drawn into the genocide, with the esteemed Presidential Guard becoming the lead perpetrator.

The human slaughter that happened and changed the course of Rwandan history forever is not just to be blamed on bloodthirsty genocidal groups themselves, but also on Africans, the big powers and the UN, who were indifferent. Martin Luther King Jnr once said that it is not the clamour of evil people that is the crisis of our times, but the silence of good people in the face of trouble. The international community in its entirety failed the spirit of human solidarity, justice and human rights.

It did act after the fact by establishing in haste a special International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha to try perpetrators, the evil people who killed, but not the good leaders who stood by and withheld their soldiers when humanity needed them to stop this barbarity. They also created the International Criminal Court to try crimes against humanity where national justice systems failed. It has helped bring to justice many who committed terrible crimes against humanity. It also gave impetus to the global consensus on the principle to guide international interventions to anticipate, prevent and stop crimes of a similar nature, the so-called Responsibility to Protect. Thus, it entrenched non-indifference in the face of a human tragedy and bound the good leaders not to shirk their duty to act to save human civilisations from barbarity. The UN created new units for early warning and responses to genocides.

The international community also strengthened the co-ordination between African organisations and the UN in dealing with similar situations in future. The support given to the difficult process of reconciliation, nation-building, state reconstruction and stabilisation in Rwanda has been remarkably successful in producing the stable, democratic and economically prosperous Rwanda of today. The work done ranges from restorative justice mechanisms like the Gacaca courts to the building of memorials to the victims. No wonder the UN could this weekend say Rwanda has forged “a new path, progressing towards a more peaceful and just society”.

The world now accepts that preventing genocide is a collective responsibility. Countries have strengthened their political and justice systems. Rwanda has fortified its national security and justice systems. Its economy has expanded remarkably since 1994, fuelled by foreign investment, mainly from China, Germany and the U.S., as well as successes in agricultural production and service industries. Poverty has come down by 20%, as has unemployment. It has to continue to grow in order to sustain its post-genocide situation.

As for us, we cannot pull out of our responsibility to strengthen weaker countries in the face of rebellions and thuggery. We will have to communicate better and hide nothing, though. We should not be ashamed of shedding blood for African renaissance.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue. He writes in his personal capacity.

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