Karel Kovanda: Early intervention would have prevented Rwanda genocide

Saturday April 20 2024

Karel Kovanda, former Czech Republic Ambassador to the UN. PHOTO | COURTESY


The former Czech ambassador to the UN and the first person to call the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi genocide, Karel Kovanda, spoke to Ivan R. Mugisha about conflicts within the UN Security Council at the time.


What informed the Security Council's delayed response to Rwanda genocide?

The disparity between United Nations (UN) reports and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accounts created confusion and delayed effective action by the Security Council. While UN reports downplayed the severity of the situation, NGOs’ accounts provided a more accurate depiction of the atrocities being committed on the ground.

For example, on January 11, 1994, General (Roméo) Dallaire, who commanded the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, Unamir, sent a critical telegram from Kigali, warning of Hutu militias arming themselves and targeting Tutsis for massacre. The telegram never reached the UNSC, so, despite Dallaire's plea for intervention, the Security Council remained unaware, and the UN Secretariat withheld approval.

The Security Council's confusion was compounded by Rwanda's membership. Ambassador Jean-Damascene Bizimana, a Hutu, blamed everything on the Tutsi. He played a significant role in the Non-Aligned Caucus (NAC), aligning with members Djibouti, Nigeria, Oman and Pakistan, who continued to view the situation through the lens of civil war and not a genocide.


Read: A rebuilt Rwanda, three decades later

What stance did France hold at the time?

France played a peculiar role, wielding influence over non-aligned members through Bizimana of Rwanda and Djibouti’s Roble Olhaye. President François Mitterrand's ties with President Juvénal Habyarimana likely influenced French policy. Concerns about Rwanda's Francophonie membership being jeopardised due to RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front), Tutsis' English fluency also played a role.

When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, France swiftly characterised the event as a terrorist attack, blaming the RPF. On April 7, the Security Council issued a statement, crafted by France and non-aligned members, urging all parties to maintain pre-crash positions and a ceasefire. These ceasefire orders were directed against the RPF and the Tutsi, but I didn’t realise that at the time. A ceasefire would have enabled the Interahamwe to kill Tutsi without any challenge.

And the United States?

The US preferred a complete pullout of Unamir from Rwanda. So, when the Secretariat suggested a six-month extension, the US pushed for a shorter term, and it was finally extended by four months, with a review after six weeks, beginning April 5, 1994.

Despite the glaring reality of a genocide in Rwanda, the US, wary of legal consequences, refrained from acknowledging this. They were content to refer to the atrocities as “acts of genocide,” not genocide. Now, tell me the difference.

They were reluctant to call it a genocide because the 1948 UN Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide compels all its members to act and punish genocidal acts.

How did this impact the workings of the Security Council and its decision making in relation to the genocide?

Behind closed doors, ambassadors and experts engaged in candid discussions, negotiating the terms of resolutions and statements before formal meetings.

Read: Rwandan envoy: Genocide was product of ignored intolerance

The informal consultations allowed for more nuanced deliberations and enabled members to address concerns and reach consensus on sensitive issues away from public scrutiny. Ultimately, decisions reached during informal consultations often determined the outcomes of formal Security Council meetings.

For example, Claude Dusaidi, an RPF representative at the UN, voiced concerns about Rwanda's situation. He visited me on January 7, stressing the precariousness of the Arusha Accords, and warned me that President Habyarimana's refusal to establish a provisional government, as mandated, raised red flags. I reported Dusaidi's visit to the Czech Foreign Ministry and Security Council colleagues.

Your involvement in drafting a statement that acknowledged the genocide is a significant part of what forced the language to change at the UN. Can you walk us through the challenges you faced in crafting this statement?

Crafting the presidential statement calling it a genocide presented several challenges. One of the main hurdles was achieving consensus among Security Council members on the language and content of the statement. Different countries had divergent views on how to characterise the events in Rwanda, leading to lengthy negotiations and compromises.

I also couldn't ignore what seemed like placing undue blame on the Tutsi, akin to blaming Jews for Nazi atrocities. Eventually, we settled on condemning attacks on civilians countrywide, particularly in areas under the Hutu government control, rightfully attributing blame.

What do you believe were the most significant lessons from the genocide by the international community?

The genocide highlighted the critical importance of early intervention and robust international action in preventing mass atrocities. It underscored a need for the Security Council to overcome political divisions and act decisively in the face of humanitarian crises.

Additionally, the genocide exposed flaws in the UN peacekeeping operations, prompting calls for reform and strengthened mandates to protect civilians. Ultimately, the international community learned that indifference and inaction in the face of genocide carry grave consequences, and there is a collective responsibility to prevent such atrocities from occurring again.

What do you think could have been done differently by the international community to prevent the genocide?

There were several missed opportunities and failures by the international community to prevent or mitigate the genocide. First and foremost, early warning signs of the impending genocide were ignored or downplayed by the UN secretariat, leading to a delayed response by the UNSC.