Thirty years ago the world failed to stop the Rwandan genocide. Now we fail Gaza
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Thirty years ago the world failed to stop the Rwandan genocide. Now we fail Gaza

s the war in Gaza grinds through its deadly sixth month and allegations of war crimes by Israel pile up, this week also marks 30 years since the world turned its back on Rwanda’s Tutsi minority.

The 100 days of killing that became known as the Rwandan genocide began on 7 April 1994. Hutu extremists murdered about 800,000 Tutsis while major powers, led by the US, found reasons not to save them.

Even as evidence of the atrocities mounted, Bill Clinton ordered his own staff not to call the killings a genocide, because that would have drawn political and legal pressures for US intervention, and blocked the United Nations security council from sending troops to stop the slaughter.

The US wasn’t alone. French soldiers in Rwanda rescued foreigners and their pets but did nothing to save ordinary Tutsis. Instead, France indulged its colonialist fantasies about regions of influence and sought to prop up the Hutu extremist government leading the genocide.

That abandonment allowed the killing to spread from Rwanda’s capital to the rest of the country and gave the Hutu regime a sense of impunity. The organisers of the attempt to exterminate the Tutsis took the world’s indifference as a signal to carry on.

Four years after the genocide, Clinton went to Rwanda and offered a duplicitous apology in which he claimed that he and other leaders did not “fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror”. In truth, there were a flood of reports to Washington about the scale of the killings, including from the US embassy in Kigali.

For Clinton, African lives counted less than the political risks of trying to save them. After the debacle of US soldiers killed in Somalia a year earlier, the US president worried that another foreign intervention might play badly in the midterm elections. The UN commander in Rwanda who pleaded for help, Lt Col Roméo Dallaire, said later that “President Clinton did not want to know.”

Guilt at the inaction prompted the UN to establish an international tribunal to try those who led the genocide. The Rwanda trials, along with a parallel tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in turn paved the way for the creation of the international criminal court (ICC) in 2002 with jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I reported from Rwanda during that terrible time; a few years later, it was gratifying to see the genocide’s perpetrators in the dock and watch as the tribunal handed down the first conviction for genocide – against Jean Paul Akayesu, the mayor of a commune – since international law made it a crime after the second world war. It took another decade to convict the mastermind of the genocide, Théoneste Bagosora, who was sentenced to life in prison following what prosecutors hailed as the most significant verdict of its kind since Nuremberg.

The trials of dozens of those most responsible for the genocide seemed to put down a marker that the world would no longer let crimes against humanity go unpunished, and that finally the promise of “never again” might be delivered.

The Rwandan genocide was also a spur for the establishment of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by all countries at the UN in 2005. The doctrine obliges governments to act against immediate threats of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Earlier this month, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, marked the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide by acknowledging that his country and its allies could have stopped it but “lacked the will to do so”, even though evidence of the crime was staring them in the face.

But what is such a frank admission of culpability worth? Three decades later, Israel’s leaders act with impunity toward Palestinians in Gaza, where undiscriminating ground attacks and bombing have killed twice as many civilians as Hamas fighters. At least 22,000 women and children are dead, according to estimates from the Gaza ministry of health – more than 1% of the Gaza Strip’s population, with untold numbers missing under the rubble.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported that Israel has created “kill zones” in parts of Gaza where “anyone who crosses into them is shot”, whether a combatant or not. The IDF set allowances for the number of civilians who could be killed when striking a particular target. Doctors have accused Israeli soldiers of targeting children.

Israel also stands accused of bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine by severely limiting deliveries of food. In addition, the bombardment has obliterated hospitals, schools, homes and roads. Large parts of the Gaza Strip are uninhabitable.

As the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Sunday, the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel “does not justify the horrific ongoing bombardment, siege and health system demolition by Israel in Gaza, killing, injuring and starving hundreds of thousands of civilians, including aid workers”.

He added: “The deaths and grievous injuries of thousands of children in Gaza will remain a stain on all of humanity. This assault on present and future generations must end. The denial of basic needs – food, fuel, sanitation, shelter, security and healthcare – is inhumane and intolerable.”

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