As we mark the grim anniversary of the Rwanda genocide it is clear we risk failing this generation’s greatest test in Syria


civil war in Syria under President Assad

This week marks 23 years since the outbreak of genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. In the space of 100 days 800,000 people were brutally killed. Many were hacked to death or burned alive in the churches and schools they ran to for protection. Babies were cut from their mothers’ wombs – unborn yet a target simply for the ethnicity of their fathers. Tens of thousands of women and girls were raped in front of their sons and fathers. Those who could afford it paid soldiers to shoot them rather than face being cut to death by machete. All of this happened under the close gaze of UN peacekeepers, who assisted in the evacuation of foreign nationals but had no mandate to protect Rwandan civilians.

Infamously, at the ETO technical school in Kicukiro, where 2000 Tutsi hid behind the UN, its peacekeepers withdrew, in full knowledge that a militia was waiting close by to murder everyone sheltering there.

For weeks leading up to April 1994, General Romeo Dallaire, the UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) commander, had been warning his superiors in New York of a deteriorating situation and passed on intelligence that a mass genocide was being planned. When it started, brave UN forces on the ground knew they had the capability to save lives and made several requests for reinforcements and a change of mandate, but UN officials and western governments, particularly in Belgium, the US and the UK, cowardly turned away.

Those leading the genocide correctly calculated that brutally murdering ten Belgian peacekeepers on the first day would be enough to prompt Belgium to withdraw its support for UNAMIR. Meanwhile, an incoming Clinton administration, haunted by the deaths of 18 US rangers in Somalia six months earlier, was keen to not take any potentially unpopular foreign policy risks. The world’s media helpfully colluded in avoiding calling it a genocide, presenting it as “an African conflict” – someone else’s problem. And for political expediency, humanity closed its eyes.

The world did not ignore Rwanda altogether. Our leaders feigned a commitment to ending the violence through endless negotiations and strongly worded statements – some even began to refer to “acts of genocide” – but all the while, Rwanda’s genocidal government retained its seat at the UN security council and before any action could be agree, three-quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population were dead.

Now, 23 years on, thanks to the commitment of its people and well targeted development aid, Rwanda is one of the safest places in Africa –  a lovely place to visit, with good transport links, excellent hotels and restaurants, well conserved wildlife, high speed broadband and beautiful scenery. Its economic development plan, which involves investing in human capital to become the information technology and finance hub of East Africa is rapidly improving health and education. Yet the memories and the losses of all those years ago still hurt and for many the trauma never seems to go away.

Recognising its mistakes, the international community said “never again” after Rwanda and Srebrenica, but today those words ring as hollow as ever.

Take Syria. The chemical attack by the Assad regime in Idlib this week was terrible and tragic. It was, sadly, not the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons against civilians in this conflict. Images of dead Syrian children, killed by Sarin gas, emerged as early as 2013, but the world has collectively failed in all this time to punish the use of banned weapons, or to take action aimed at protecting civilians.

The late Labour MP Jo Cox, and former Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, called on the government in The Guardian in 2015 to consider using UK forces as part of an ethical solution in Syria. This was not a call to wage war for the purpose of regime change (like Iraq), but to put the protection of fellow human beings at the heart of our Syria policy. Firstly, to take more refugees, secondly engage in diplomacy, and thirdly, to set up safe-areas for civilian protection.

Shamefully, in my view, these views were attacked by people who either cynically or ignorantly portrayed them as a call for more violence. Like in Rwanda 23 years ago, politicians asked more time for talks, while every day horrific atrocities have continued. Syria is our generation’s greatest test and one, I fear, that history will judge us to have failed in.

The Labour Party has a proud history, not only of supporting a strong defence of our own country, but of standing up to fascism and human rights abuse wherever it is found. Our socialism is rooted in the belief that every human being has an equal worth and an equal right to a healthy and prosperous life.

Yesterday the Labour Campaign for International Development released a statement calling on the British government to take necessary measures to protect civilians, support refugees and hold individuals to account for crimes against humanity. Please read it and add your name by clicking here.

Sam Rushworth is membership officer of the Labour campaign for international development. 

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