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Loud echoes of a bloody past

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When Tamils in Sri Lanka say they are being subject to genocide, the international community brushes off these protests as exaggerations or histrionics. The word ‘genocide’, is not only powerful and emotive, it carries serious legal obligations for the international community.


The world’s worst genocide after WW2 occurred in Rwanda. The case of Sri Lanka’s Tamils, it is bluntly suggested, is very different to that of Rwanda’s Tutsis. It is not made clear why – except for the sheer scale of the slaughter in three months of 1994.


Admittedly, this has not happened in Sri Lanka. But the parallels between Sri Lanka and pre-1994 Rwanda are striking.


A close comparison of the two situations shows up important similarities, both in terms of the evolving conditions in which a minority comes to be subjected to exterminatory attacks by a majority and, just as importantly, in the conduct of the world’s leading states, especially the Western democracies, in relation to the crisis.


Here are a few summary points. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 took place,


-         after an internationally (United Nations) sponsored ceasefire and peace talks had led to a tentative ‘peace deal’  - on ‘power-sharing’ – had been reached between the majoritarian government and the minority group;


-         as the international community continued to remain diplomatically engaged and aware of the deteriorating situation (but refusing to intervene);


-         after the government had re-armed its military during the peace talks;


-         after large numbers of the majority community had been organised into ‘civil militia’ against the ‘terrorism’ of the minority;


-         after several decades of ethnic animosity had intensified into communal attacks and pogroms against the minority by the majority;


-         after the majority had come, after independence from colonialism, to dominate the state and the armed forces;


-         after decades of the international community denying there was an ‘ethnic problem’;


This article, the last in a three part series looking at the notion of ‘genocide’ and Sri Lanka – therefore examines the build up to Rwanda’s catastrophe, focussing on the role of the international community.


Not long before a million Tutsis were slaughtered in an organised attempt at extermination, there had been internationally-brokered peace talks between the Hutu government (of President Habyarimana) and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), representing the Tutsis.


After the talks the Tutsi were on the verge of a credible, internationally-backed power sharing agreement– the Arusha Accords.


That was when the ethnic crisis finally erupted into extermination.


Academic Michael Mann  - whose thesis was examined in part 2 (TG375) – explains why: “the danger zone” from which ethnic conflict turns murderous is reached when two rival ethnic groups lay claim to political sovereignty over the same territory; and where both claims appear legitimate and realizable.


As with the majority Sinhala in Sri Lanka, the historical ‘grievances’ of the majority Hutu included the claim that prior to independence, the Colonial rulers had discriminated against the majority ethnic group in favour of the minority.


Moreover, like the Tamils are positioned in the mythology of the Sinhala, the Hutus considered the Tutsi to be ‘invaders’. As Colonel Bagosora, a Hutu commander: “the Tutsis never had a country of their own; they were people who came to Rwanda and were naturalised”.


The Sinhalese consider the Tamils to have invaded from south India and ‘grabbed’ the Northeast. This is the same logic in the Sinhalese people’s support once the British had left Ceylon to (1) strip a million Upcountry Tamils of citizenship and (2) make Sinhala – rather than English – the official language.


Both Sri Lanka and Rwanda have a history of pogroms against the minority by the majority. According to academic Linda Melvern (in her 2004 book, ‘Conspiracy to Murder, The Rwandan Genocide’), the slaughter of Tutsi in 1959 was the first of several pogroms and, whilst the extent of the casualties varied, the methods used to trap and kill victims would remain largely the same.


Sri Lanka has seen anti-Tamil pogroms in 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983.


When these pogroms occurred, the attitudes of the majority rulers of both states, say between President J. R. Jayawardene of Sri Lanka and President Kayibanda of Rwanda, are eerily similar.


For example, Jayawardene blamed the genocidal 1983 pogroms on the Tamils’ intolerable demand for a separate state. He freely admitted: “I am not worried about the opinion of the Tamil people ... if I starve the Tamils out, the Sinhala people will be happy.”


President Kayibanda told the Tutsis in 1963: “some of you are causing trouble for your brothers who are living in peace in a democratic Rwanda – and suppose you take Kigali by force ... it will be the total end of the Tutsi race”.


Kayibanda also warned that if the Tutsi sought political power, their whole race would be wiped out.


Linda Melvern says of the Rwandan pogroms: “And in each case the role of propaganda and the distortion of history …were paramount” in paving the way for the violence.


Hutu- and state-controlled media were key to whipping up anti-minority sentiments amongst the majority and portraying the former as violent upstarts who should be put down before it was too late.


(Remember also how the Arusha Accords had given considerable legitimacy to Tutsi demands for power-sharing and further angered the Hutus).


Similarly, Sinhala- and state-owned media in Sri Lanka, present a particular view of the Tamils, their political demands and the LTTE. For example, that the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement was a ‘sell-out’, that the Tamils are asking for too much (even in the case of federalism), that they are doing well in Sri Lanka and have no grievances, etc.


It is not accidental that last month, the Free Media Movement and four other media organisations said in a statement republished by the AHRC (Asian Human Rights Commission), that: “[the] language and behaviour of the Rajapakse administration's apparatchiks reminds us of Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda, which laid the groundwork for genocide and large-scale violence.”


Just as importantly, as in Sri Lanka, no one from the majority community in Rwanda had ever been punished for past pogroms against the minorities.


Nonetheless, as also in Sri Lanka, the majority-minority relations were seen by the international community as generally good and not disposed to breaking down into mass racism or violence.


As Linda Melvern puts it, Rwanda’s reputation in the seventies was that of a “boring virtuous Christian country in the mainstream of benign dictatorships” (Rwanda was a one party state then).


There is no basis for this sanguine view. Even by 1959, the United Nations was aware of genocidal tendencies – that year the General Assembly sent a special commission to Rwanda to report on the 1959 pogrom (which had resulted in 2000 Tutsi deaths).


Notably, along with a refusal to countenance mass racism, international engagement with the Rwandan state involved the steady supply of military assistance and provision of economic aid. The only ‘counter-balance’ was support for the “strengthening” of human rights mechanisms.


Furthermore, in the period 1990 to 1993, there was pressure from the United States and France on the Hutu government of Presient Habyarimana to implement reforms towards a multi-cultural democracy.


A multi-cultural political opposition was constructed and sponsored by the internationally community. The Belgian government arranged for this new opposition to hold talks with the RPF of the Tutsis.


However, as the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTR) investigations subsequently revealed, even as such reforms were being wrestled with, in parallel, through 1990 and 1991, extremist sections of the Rwandan (i.e. Hutu) army were planning the genocide of the Tutsis.


A critical component of the genocide was the countrywide civil defence network staffed by Hutus and established with military support.


During the eighties and early nineties, tens of thousands of Sinhalese were mobilised into so-called ‘Home Guards’ and sent into Tamil areas to clear out the minority and establish colonies in the Tamils’ homeland.


And in the past three years, as the Rajapakse government has pursued a military campaign against the LTTE, Sinhala civilians are being trained and incorporated into civil-defence groups.


Although, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is said to have been ‘triggered’ by the plane crash that killed President Habyarimana, the slaughter of almost a million people in three months (almost ten thousand a day!) had been pre-planned (ironically by Habyarimana himself among others).


In other words, the organising of the death squads and distribution of weapons had been planned and carried out well before the killing started.


As in Sri Lanka, past attempts to make peace in Rwanda had resulted in majoritarian anger. Linda Melvern says of the Rwandan political process: “each time there was a proposal of power sharing, there was violence. It was aimed not just at political opposition but at the Tutsi.”


Every step of the Norwegian peace process in Sri Lanka produced Sinhala anger and sometimes rioting: the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, the 2002 agreement to explore federalism (note the ferocity the word alone invokes these days), the proposals for and interim administration (ISGA), the Post-Tsunami aid sharing mechanism (PTOMS), and so on.


Indeed, since independence, the numerous efforts by Tamil political leaders (long before Tamil militants emerged) to seek accommodation with the Sinhalese, were met by anger and violence.


Interestingly, in Rwanda, as limited constitutional reform got underway and the media began to open up, President Habyarimana’s party lost support. The government’s response was to charge that the enemy (RPF) was financing some of Rwanda’s newspapers to “poison the political atmosphere.”


Habyarimana provided a list of papers and names of journalists who worked for them to the Ministry of Justice for prosecution, prompting condemnation from the Association of Journalists.


Today, the Rajapakse government is recognised as one of the world’s most repressive in relation to media freedom. The military establishment’s attacks, both physical and verbal, on journalists said to be ‘betraying’ the country have been so commonplace as to become expected.


It is the international community’s conduct in the years preceding the 1994 Rwandan genocide that is of particular relevance to the Tamil question.


And it should be remembered that Rwanda’s mass killings took place long before the present ‘War on Terror’ began, resulting in struggles against oppression in many parts of the world being lumped together with Islamic radicals targeting the United States and the West.


In the three years that lead to the genocide, France, the former colonial power, continued to train the Hutu military. Even the brutal massacre in March 1992 of 300 Tutsis in Bugesera did not halt the West’s military assistance.


Not even when the Director of Amnesty International in France said of the Bugesera and killings elsewhere: “those responsible for the massacres are soldiers with help from the civil authorities.”


Similarly, despite the tens of thousands of Tamils who have died in massacres, airstrikes, artillery shelling and embargoes on food and medicine, the West, including former Colonial power, Britain, continues to train, equip and share intelligence with the Sri Lankan armed forces.


While internationally sponsored negotiations were prepared in 1992 between the government and the RPF, violence against opposition parties escalated. Propaganda campaigns accused the new political parties as “fronts” for the RPF.


And as early as 1991, the RPF alleged the President’s brother-in-law – a key architect of the genocide – had planned to eliminate political opponents.


In Sri Lanka, Tamil political parties that have stood up for Tamil political rights have been denounced as ‘cat’s paws’, ‘lackeys’ or ‘fronts’ of the LTTE.


The latest to suffer this is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which has seen several of its parliamentarians, party workers and supporters assassinated by the Rajapakse government.


Linda Melvern says that concern over Rwanda’s massive military expenditure and its impact on the economy lead the United States and France to push for a political settlement.


But the French government, which hosted the preliminary talks, simultaneously trained up new Hutu army intelligence units to identify, infiltrate and eliminate targeted members of the RPF. Hutu militias were also trained.


Similarly, just as the United States and other countries have repeatedly called for a political solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict, they have simultaneously trained up and massively re-equipped the armed forces.


In Rwanda, the Arusha Accord was signed in 1993 and UN peace keeping mission (UNAMIR) established. But also in 1993, the Hutu government stepped up arms procurement, primarily through France.


In the three years to the run up to the Accord, Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world was also the third largest importer of weapons in Africa, spending an estimated $100 million. According to Melvern, the money came from international funding – the World Bank, the IMF and the European Union.


In 1993, amid demonization of the minority, the Rwandan state began to distribute weapons amongst the majority. It imported vast quantities of machetes and other agricultural tools – axes, blades, knives, hoes etc. Melvern says there was one new machete for every third male in the country.


The “Interhamwe” or Youth militia was formed in 1991 and began small-scale ethnic killings shortly thereafter.


The militias were also provided with new AK-47s and grenades. By the time the 1994 genocide started, 85 tonnes of ammunition had been distributed through the country.


Post-genocide investigation showed flagrant misappropriation of funds, but there has been no explanation as to why five World Bank missions failed to question the level of military expenditure relative to the stated development goals of funds provided.


A senior defector from President Habyarimana’s party alleged massive corruption by radical sections in the military: “these oligarchs are treating the country like a private company from which maximum profits can be squeezed.”


In Sri Lanka, it is an open secret that the top leadership of the military establishment and other key parts of the state are appropriating state funds, either directly or by trading with the state through private companies.


The point here is that even in the context of peace negotiations, the international community donated or lent the money that the Rwandan – and Sri Lankan – state needed to buy vast quantities of weapons and equipment from abroad – from Western states.


Just as importantly, the Western democracies indirectly funding and directly providing weaponry, were well aware of the weapons’ potential in the context of an attempted genocide.


Indeed, the g-word was not far beneath the surface in Rwanda.


One Rwandan human rights group had already labelled the 1993 Bugesera massacre of 300 Tutsi as genocide. But the International Commission of Inquiry that investigated Bugesera considered the word “too politically charged” for its report (interestingly, the Commission’s press officer disagreed and the word “genocide” appeared in the title of the press release accompanying the report).


The 1993 report of the UN Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions noted that in the previous two years, some two thousand Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, had been murdered.


The UN Rapporteur was also concerned at the mass arrests of Tutsi following the first RPF attack, and the government’s use of propaganda to create a situation where all Tutsi were portrayed as complicit.


Nonetheless, the ethnic question was so sensitive that the Arusha negotiations avoided framing Rwanda’s conflict in terms of Tutsi versus Hutus - even though this is exactly what it was.


In today’s Sri Lanka, as in the past, the mass arrests of Tamils by the Sinhala armed forces takes place with unremarkable routine and the “terrorism” label is used readily in such contexts.


Moreover, the kind of war being fought by the Sri Lankan military – mass bombardment of Tamil areas, the driving of hundreds of thousands of Tamils from their homes, the abduction and murder of thousands of civilians, etc – makes the context plain to see.


Compared to Rwanda, Sri Lanka has a longer, more sustained history of ethnic pogroms – 1956, 1977, 1983 being the major ones with smaller massacres in between.


Yet, a decade after Rwanda’s genocide, the international community flatly rejects any suggestion of state racism in Sri Lanka.


As the above and previous articles in this series have, drawing on the academic literature on genocide, argued, Sri Lanka, like Rwanda, has most of the requisite conditions for genocide: a supremacist ideology among the ruling elite, a climate of impunity, the presence and increasing use of militias, rapid rearmament in the context of a ceasefire, mass arrests and murders of ethnic minorities, corruption, international funding without adequate supervision and government intimidation, of the media.


Simply put, Sri Lanka meets the standard that was determined in 1993 as appropriate for use of the word genocide in the UN Rapporteur’s 1993 report on Rwanda.


In other words, there is no difference between what is happening in Sri Lanka now and what was happening in Rwanda shortly before the 1994 genocide there.


But in Sri Lanka, as in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, ‘ethnic conflict’ and ‘genocide’ are the two things the international community simply will not accept (last month, for example, the US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Robert O’ Blake, was emphatic that there was no such thing as an ethnic conflict there).


Any period of transition from war to peace is a dangerous time, especially when it involves a majoritarian state begrudgingly sharing power with a hated minority.


But the US and UK governments insisted on a narrow mandate for the United Nations peace-keeping mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). (Whilst the US had lost 18 soldiers in Somalia a year earlier and reportedly was wary of ‘intervention’, the context in which UNAMIR was going in was very markedly different).


As Melvern notes, UNAMIR’s mandate in Rwanda (UNAMIR) excluded protecting civilians, collecting illegal arms or taking action against armed gangs – the very things that precluded UN intervention in a vicious project which had been built p in the preceding three years. ‘Security’ of the country, moreover, meant security in the capital, Kigali.


An American foreign policy specialist, Samantha Power, provides an illuminating analysis of the international and in particular, US, role in the Rwandan genocide.


Her 2001 text (“Bystanders to Genocide”) is based on a three year investigation and sixty interviews with US officials.


Samantha Power identifies three weaknesses in the international strategy that accompanied the Arusha Accords.


Firstly, whenever the negotiations were not going well, the international community threatened to pull out the UN troops. Not only was this exactly what the newly rearmed Hutu extremists wanted, such a threat only makes sense if the UN troops were there for purposes other than to protect the Tutsis.


Secondly, she says, “before and during the massacres U.S. diplomacy revealed its natural bias toward states and toward negotiations. Setbacks were perceived as ‘dangers to the peace process’ more than as ‘dangers to Rwandans.’ American criticisms were deliberately and steadfastly levelled at ‘both sides,’ though Hutu government and militia forces were usually responsible.”


Thirdly, the international community was happy to accept a certain level of ethnic violence in the region. When the genocide started, “US regional specialists initially suspected that Rwanda was undergoing ‘another flare-up’ that would involve another ‘acceptable’ (if tragic) round of ethnic murder.”


In short, adamantly refusing to accept the ethnic basis for Rwanda’s conflict, inherently biased towards the state and tolerant of the country’s proclivity for violence, the United States simply ignored the unfolding genocide.


The parallels with Sri Lanka are, once again, striking.


Throughout the Norwegian peace process, the international community, refused to blame the Sri Lankan state for its role in the gradually escalating cycle of violence. They refused to accept the role of the state and the LTTE as straddling a deep ethnic faultline. They either blamed the LTTE (‘terrorists’) or “both sides” when the Sri Lankan state escalated its military campaign against the LTTE.


Just as importantly, the international community was more concerned with “the peace process” than the plight of the Tamils. Which is why over eight hundred thousand Tamils continue to remain displaced while the Sri Lankan military – in direct contradiction of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement – continues to occupy their homes, farmland, schools, places of worship, etc.


In Rwanda, as the genocide began, the international community can be seen to have demonstrated appalling indifference, at best, and active support for the state, at worst.


UNAMIR was even warned by an informer of a plan to exterminate the Tutsi. And that was in January 1994, 4 months before the killing began. The informer revealed the existence of plans and stockpiles of weapons for this purpose.


Major General Romeo Dallaire, the head of the UNAMIR, sent his famous “genocide” fax to UN head quarters – four months prior to the actual genocide. He cited evidence of a plan to exterminate Tutsi and requested permission to seize the weapons stockpiles as a defensive measure.


He was refused permission.


When he telephoned to protest, Dallaire was told the US would not support aggressive peace-keeping. While his mandate included assisting the parties to establish a weapons-free zone, he had no mandate to seize weapons himself.


On April 6, 1994, a surface-to-air missile brought down the plane carrying the Hutu President. The genocide promptly began.


Within 3 days, over 10,000 Tutsi had been massacred in the Rwandan capital.


Major General Dallaire repeatedly asked for expansion of his mandate to intervene to protect Tutsi civilians and for reinforcements for his vastly outnumbered (circa two thousand) troops.


He was refused.


Samantha Power identifies the following reasons for international failure:


[1] Refusal to use the term genocide, for fear of legal implications; [2] a foreigners first policy; [3] a US policy shift (encapsulated in the PD225 memo by Richard Clarke) that the US would only support intervention where US national interests were served and clear benefits arose from the intervention.


The ‘foreigners first’ policy had immediate repercussions, diverting UN resources from protecting the much larger number of Rwandans at risk. For example, Belgian troops guarding some 2,000 Rwandan Tutsi, including 400 children, who had grouped at a local school were withdrawn to help man airport where foreigners were being evacuated, even though the school was surrounded by shouting militia waiting to massacre the Tutsi.


More importantly, the foreigners being removed itself gave the green light for the genocide: 20,000 Tutsi were killed in the capital itself over the three days that the evacuation took place.


As if to reinforce the point, the US and other governments sent a thousand extra troops to help evacuate four thousand foreigners, but the troops were withdrawn once the evacuation was over.


As Major General Dallaire described it: “Mass slaughter was happening, and suddenly there in Kigali we had the forces we needed to contain it, and maybe even to stop it.  Yet they picked up their people and turned and walked away."


When the evacuation of Americans was complete, President and Mrs Clinton visited the people who had manned the emergency-operations room at the State Department and offered congratulations on a "job well done."


If there is an assumption that mass killings of Tamils in Sri Lanka or ethnic minorities elsewhere will be prevented by the presence of large numbers of foreign citizens, the events of the first two weeks of the Rwandan genocide should seriously challenge this optimism.


However, what was critical to successful progress of the mass killing was the international community’s steadfast refusal to classify it as ‘genocide’.


As Samantha Power puts it, “even after the reality of genocide in Rwanda had become irrefutable, when bodies were shown choking the KageraRiver on the nightly news, the brute fact of the slaughter failed to influence US policy except in a negative way.”


“American officials, for a variety of reasons, shunned the use of what became known as ‘the g-word.’ They felt that using it would have obliged the United States to act, under the terms of the 1948 Genocide Convention. They also believed, understandably, that it would harm US credibility to name the crime and then do nothing to stop it.”


Power cites a discussion paper on Rwanda, dated May 1, 1994, prepared by a US official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which testifies to the nature of official thinking.


Regarding issues that might be brought up at the next interagency working group, it states: “Genocide Investigation: Language that calls for an international investigation of human rights abuses and possible violations of the genocide convention. Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday — Genocide finding could commit [the US government] to actually "do something.


Linda Melvern concludes: “as permanent members of the UN security council, the US and UK could have taken action in accordance with the 1949 Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of the Crime of genocide, a legally binding treaty… while these states resisted even using the word genocide, this would appear to indicate they were aware that it carried some form of obligation to act.”


Samantha Power says of PDD-25 (or Presidential Policy Directive) drafted by Richard Clark at the time of the genocide: “PDD-25 did not merely circumscribe US participation in UN missions; it also limited US support for other states that hoped to carry out UN missions.”


“Before such missions could garner U.S. approval, policymakers had to answer certain questions: Were US interests at stake? Was there a threat to world peace? A clear mission goal? Acceptable costs? Congressional, public, and allied support? A working cease-fire? A clear command-and-control arrangement? And, finally, what was the exit strategy?”


(PDD-25 can be seen at http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/pdd25.htm)


Thus, in an act of arguable complicity, the US and the UK repeatedly obstructed UN attempts to classify what was happening in Rwanda as genocide, thereby prolonging the time available to the killers to carry out their work.


Disregarding credible evidence from the ICRC, Amnesty and other Human Rights groups, they argued that the Tutsi civilians were caught up in what was merely a civil war.


It is beyond the scope of this article to examine all of the ways in which the international community obfuscated the issue of genocide, obstructed each other’s attempts to “resolve” the problem and generally contributed to the continuation of the mass killing in Rwanda.


France, for example, eventually intervened militarily but only to ensure the Hutu administration and military that perpetrated the genocide could safely evacuate before the RPF’s offensive captured the capital.


However, the above crystallises into one inescapable fact;


Given the dynamics of US (and like-minded Western) bureaucratic calculations over mass killing, Tamils in Sri Lanka and other communities facing majoritarian violence should expect the same inaction. (Note Ambassador O’ Blake’s emphatic denial of ‘ethnic war’ in Sri Lanka – for the US this is just part of the ‘War on Terror’).


Samantha Power quotes an official in the Bush Administration on changes in attitude since Rwanda: "Genocide could happen again tomorrow and we wouldn't respond any differently."

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