April 7 marked the sixth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, one of the most shameful acts of political cowardice in recent history. Many uncertainties still linger over the events that began that day, but what we know is enough to judge the behavior of the participants as evil, and the reaction of others as disgraceful.
On April 6, 1994, unknown individuals — now suspected to have been Tutsi guerrillas — shot down the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. The next day, Hutus went on a rampage throughout the country, slaughtering between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Allegedly, the genocide had been planned months in advance.
The killings sparked international outrage, but the United Nations did not intervene. Indeed, foreign troops were withdrawn when the violence began. The extent of the U.N.’s knowledge of the situation in Rwanda is another subject of dispute. Reportedly, the organization had been warned several weeks before that a massacre was imminent. Eventually, a group of rebel Tutsis ousted the Hutu extremists and installed their own government.
Over 120,000 people have been accused of genocide and are currently in prison awaiting trial. Justice will be a long time coming. Fewer than 3,000 people have been tried in local hearings. Only 20,000 took up the government’s offer of reduced sentences for those that confessed. The government now says it will convene people’s courts to speed up the process. Whether those verdicts will be just is another matter.
An international tribunal has been set up, but it has tried only five of the most notorious leaders. All have been sentenced to life in prison. Other fugitives have escaped justice entirely.
Justice will also require that members of the U.N. Security Council confess their own appalling behavior. Their willingness to look away as the violence unfolded is a disgrace. U.S. President Bill Clinton conceded as much during his visit to Rwanda two years ago, but the policies that slowed the U.N. — put in place by his administration — are still in place, adding insult to injury to the victims of the dreadful time in Rwanda.
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