Kofi Annan was a strong voice for peace. Rwanda was where he fell short.
Kofi Annan, the first U.N. secretary general from sub-Saharan Africa, died Saturday after a short illness. Annan, a career U.N. diplomat, served as secretary general from 1997 to 2006 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001 for his work toward “a better organized and a more peaceful world,” along with his contributions to the fights against AIDS and international terrorism.
But Annan’s long career as a peacemaker has a dark page: the 1994 genocide of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. Annan oversaw U.N. peacekeeping efforts during this time, and the situation in Rwanda unraveled quickly. The inability of the United Nations to stop the genocide has been well documented, and Annan has been criticized for not heeding the warnings of violence.
There were clear signs of the violence to come
Annan was named head of the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in March 1993. Just five months later, he took on the task of setting up the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to oversee the Arusha Peace Accords between the government of Rwanda and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which had been at war since 1990.
But even as UNAMIR troops deployed in Rwanda, the situation in the country deteriorated. Signs that ethnic violence was imminent emerged as early as November 1993. As Alison Des Forges wrote in “Leave None to Tell the Story” (a report that I helped research and write as head of the Human Rights Watch office in Rwanda in 1995-1996):
The preparations for violence took place in full view of a U.N. peacekeeping force. The commander of that force reported evidence of the worsening situation to his superiors who directed him to observe the narrowest possible interpretation of his mandate. He was in effect to do nothing but keep on talking with the authorities while they kept on preparing for slaughter.
The primary superior to whom the UNAMIR commander, Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire, reported was Annan. Between January and March 1994, Dallaire repeatedly briefed Annan and other U.N. officials about the deteriorating situation in Rwanda, including a warning as early as Jan. 11 about a plan for “Tutsi extermination.” He repeatedly sought authorization from Annan to confiscate arms and otherwise act to prevent imminent violence, but was rebuffed.
Annan responded to Dallaire’s Jan. 11 cable by telling him that the request “clearly goes beyond the mandate entrusted to UNAMIR” and that “the overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions.”
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