A waste of hope
There are no adequate answers to genocide. But, argue Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal,
the UN response in Rwanda has been counter-productive.

As the people of Rwanda struggled to come to terms with the catastrophe visited upon their nation by the genocide of April-July 1994, the creation of the United Nations Human Rights Field Operation in Rwanda (HRFOR) represented a moment of hope.

Formed with a model mandate that included assisting the investigation into the genocide, monitoring respect for human rights and helping to re-establish the basic institutions of a judiciary, police force and prison service, HRFOR appeared to be a tangible expression of international solidarity with the people of Rwanda. It was also an opportunity for the UN, whose reputation in Rwanda has been blighted by a succession of débacles, to redeem itself. Official statements still give the impression that all is proceeding according to plan.

Sadly, the truth is rather different. The evidence gathered over three months by African Rights is comprehensive and damning. One of the HRFOR monitors described the mission as ‘a waste of time, energy and money. But worst of all, it is a waste of hope.’

No approach to human rights can establish – let alone retain – integrity and credibility without first investigating the genocide that colours every individual and every event in Rwanda. Such investigations were briefly on the agenda, but now they have been designated as the exclusive responsibility of the International Tribunal – set up to investigate the genocide – and the Rwandese judiciary. This forces HRFOR monitors into an extremely partial, even partisan role: their mandate is to prevent revenge attacks and protect those who are the targets of such attacks, sometimes impeding the Government’s own investigation.

The problem of neglecting the genocide is compounded by inadequate attention to the normal procedures of human-rights investigation, such as protecting the anonymity of witnesses and scrupulous checking of facts. One monitor described the HRFOR teams as ‘amateurs masquerading as professionals’ and went on to describe a characteristic incident: ‘I remember a meeting in which a monitor came back from Butare and described Butare as a region “in the grip of terrorism”. He proceeded to narrate some of the stories he had been told. The reaction around the table reminded me of my first year as a criminal-law student. Everybody sat there saying “Wow, what a story!” and “Oh my God!” There were no questions about looking for the evidence.’

UN teams in Rwanda described as 'amateurs', obsessively concerned with 'going on patrol'.

Many of the monitors are young, inexperienced and unqualified, and have been sent to Rwanda with virtually no training and preparation. The stories of how monitors were recruited and despatched to Rwanda would make for comic fiction, were the issues not so serious. Monitors were hired over the telephone or by fax, without checking references. Many had no relevant work experience at all. In testimonies to African Rights the monitors describe how they were completely unprepared for the task that confronted them.

In a situation that is beyond their competence, and with inadequate leadership, monitors have been compelled to improvise. This has resulted in an obsessive concern with going ‘on patrols’, in extreme circumstances adopting an aggressive, paramilitary style. There has been little or no effort to support attempts by the Rwandese authorities to identify and arrest those suspected of active involvement in the genocide.

It is important to respect the rights of the accused. But it is also important to recognize that in Rwanda the overwhelming priority is to bring to justice those guilty of genocide – a formidable task in a country whose judicial institutions have been all-but destroyed. Without speedy progress, however, the impulses towards indiscriminate revenge and an entrenched culture of impunity make for an explosive political situation.

The poor professional standards of staff, lack of leadership and the distorted mandate have all eroded whatever moral high ground HRFOR might have enjoyed. Infighting and low morale have been the inevitable result. At immense cost precious little of substance has been achieved.

HRFOR has so far proven to be a waste of resources – both human and financial – and a betrayal of the hopes of the Rwandese people. The office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has appealed for funds to continue the mission. This will be futile and counter-productive unless HRFOR is thoroughly reformed.

Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal are Co-directors of African Rights, whose report Rwanda: a Waste of Hope can be obtained from
11 Marshalsea Road, London SE1 1EP, England.

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