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At UN, memorial conference on Rwandan genocide considers lessons for future

26 March 2004 Just days ahead of the 10-year anniversary of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the United Nations today hosted a memorial conference to mark the occasion, which served as an opportunity to review past mistakes and draw lessons for the future.

Addressing the gathering, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who headed the UN's peacekeeping department during the three months of massacres that claimed some 800,000 lives, said this blighted moment in history had deeply impacted him personally. At the time, he pressed dozens of countries to contribute troops. "I believed that I was doing my best, but I realized after the genocide that there was more that I could and should have done to sound the alarm and rally support," he said.

"This painful memory, along with that of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has influenced much of my thinking, and many of my actions, as Secretary-General," he added.

He said the events of 10 years ago, and the failure of the world to respond, "must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret and abiding sorrow."

Mr. Annan called on the people of the world - "everywhere, no matter what their station in life, whether in crowded cities or remote rural areas" - to observe a minute's silence at noon local time in every time zone on 7 April, which has been marked by the General Assembly as the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda.

"Let us be united in a way we were not 10 years ago. And let us, by what we do in one single minute, send a message - remorse for the past, resolve to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again - that resounds for years to come," he said.

The Secretary-General, who has already called for the establishment of a special rapporteur on the subject of genocide, said today he is still analyzing what other steps can be taken to reduce the chances of another genocide happening again.

While cautioning that the world could not be confident that it would respond effectively if faced with a situation similar to that prevailing in Rwanda in 1994, he said he was encouraged by some steps already taken, including the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which is trying people accused of committing the genocide. He noted the ICTR has achieved several pioneering verdicts, including the first conviction for genocide by an international court.

Rwanda's Foreign Minister, Charles Murigande, told the conference that the international community failed to intervene even though it had plenty of advance warning from many sources, including a UN rapporteur and numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs), that large-scale killing was likely.

"Calling it genocide would have made it an obligation for the international community to intervene, which it was unwilling to do. And so people spoke of 'mass killing,' 'tribal violence' or 'acts of genocide' to escape having to take responsibility, while Rwandans died at a rate of well over 10,000 a day," he said.

Mr. Murigande said he supported the findings of a report entitled "Responsibility to Protect," which recommended that when a population is suffering serious harm and the State in question is unwilling or unable to act, then the international community has a duty to protect.

Ibrahim Gambari, Under-Secretary-General and Special Adviser on Africa, said the events in Rwanda highlighted "structural and policy failures" in the UN, including at the Security Council.

"Without a doubt, it was the Council, especially its most powerful members, that had failed the people of Rwanda in their gravest hour of need," he said, adding that too many countries which contributed peacekeepers to the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) at the time of the genocide quickly withdrew their troops after the killing of a dozen soldiers in early April 1994.

"While such concerns were legitimate, those countries had ignored the moral duty to help save defenceless civilians who were being massacred in broad daylight."

Former UNAMIR Force Commander, retired Gen. Romeo Dallaire of Canada, said the international community treated the UN Mission as "a last priority," giving it no budget and no structure. National governments made the decision to withdraw their troops, not the UN, and reinforcements did not arrive until August.

Mr. Dallaire said he often wondered why the genocide in Rwanda was dismissed as mere "tribalism," whereas in the former Yugoslavia at the same time, "there was talk about ethnic cleansing."

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