Two decades ago, the world watched in horror as Rwanda was pulled apart by a brutal genocide. The international community, burned by a failed intervention in Somalia and distracted by events elsewhere, failed to intervene to stop the killing.
Led by the US and supported by Britain, the UN Security Council refused to deploy a stronger peacekeeping force. By the time it was galvanised into action, an estimated 800,000 people were dead.
The failure to prevent genocide
I visited Rwanda shortly after the genocide and saw the consequences of that inaction: children orphaned and traumatised by the country’s paroxysm of violence, their parents and siblings murdered in front of them. Mothers – more than 20,000 of them – pregnant as a result of rape. Women and children missing limbs as a result of machetes wielded without mercy.
The failure to prevent the genocide will always live with me and many others who worked on Rwanda and campaigned for action at the time.
Because we collectively said “never again”, an international consensus was built on the need to prevent atrocities. The UK spearheaded the effort toward getting global agreement on the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, which calls on the international community to use diplomatic and humanitarian means and, as a last resort, military force to protect civilians from the worst crimes.
Forgetting the lessons of 1994
And yet today, it seems that we are in danger of forgetting the lessons learnt in 1994. In Syria, the world has stood by as children have been killed, tortured, starved and imprisoned. And nearly 20 years on from the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, another African state is convulsed by fighting and ethnic cleansing: Central African Republic (CAR).
Some of the stories of the children I met there on a recent visit were eerily reminiscent of Rwanda. Standing at the red-brick Catholic mission in the CAR capital, Bangui, surrounded by thousands of frightened families protected by only four African Union troops, sent a shiver down my spine.
I heard about families hacked to death with machetes because they were from the wrong community. One mother told me how a marauding militia burned her house and shot her husband – another family described their terror as more than 130 houses in their village were burnt to the ground.
CAR: a humanitarian tragedy
Thousands of people have been killed in intercommunal violence in the last four months and over 600,000 people are internally displaced because they are too afraid to go home. With the rainy season fast approaching and with it the threat of malaria, cholera and starvation, more than a million children are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
The United Nations has warned that CAR could be on the brink of genocide. Whether it meets the technical definition or not, we are seeing sectarian cleansing and a huge humanitarian tragedy. But the world has been slow to act.
The aid effort is scandalously underfunded, with less than 20 per cent of the funds needed. French and African Union troops are doing their best, but their numbers are too small to protect civilians across the country.
Protecting civilians in desperate need
The UN Security Council (UNSC) is meeting next week to decide whether to transform the AU force to a full UN Peacekeeping Mission – it needs to act fast. Even if the UNSC agrees, the new force would not be on the ground until September, which may come too late to protect civilians who are in desperate need of it now. We need at least 20,000 peacekeepers on the ground.
Rwanda should have marked a low point for humanity that we would never sink to again. But we are at risk of repeating the mistakes made there two decades ago in CAR and Syria today. I never thought that 20 years on from Rwanda, I would be campaigning again for the UN to deploy a force to a small central African country.
No crisis is the same, but some things remain constant: where there are children who need our help, we must do everything we can to protect them.
This article was originally published in The Telegraph on 7 April 2014.