“Rwanda is our nightmare, South Africa is our dream,” wrote the Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, reflecting on the events of April 1994 — the most momentous month in Africa’s post-indepedence history.
Even as South Africans formed endless human chains — to vote for former South African president Nelson Mandela — their first black president and as they buried racial apartheid under euphoria, hundreds of thousands of people were being murdered in a tiny east African country away from the the global gaze.
Twenty years on from these twin eruptions, South Africa remains a template of reconciliation studied everywhere from Northern Ireland to Palestine, but the Rwandan genocide can be seen as a fork in the road not just for Africa, but the world.
That searing experience continues to shape the thinking of a generation of policymakers and peacemakers anxious that there should not be “another Rwanda” on their watch. It is a constant specter when global powers debate the morality of intervention — whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Syria, the Central African Republic (CAR) or Ukraine.
“No serious international lawyer has applauded the US’ failure to act in Rwanda... Syria should not be another Rwanda.” Mia Swart, a professor of international law at the University of Johannesburg, wrote in South Africa’s Business Day newspaper.
Along with that other 1990s catastrophe in Bosnia, the killing of 800,000 Tutsis by Hutu extremists in Rwanda over 100 days was a signal failure of UN peacekeeping.
Then-UN military commander Romeo Dallaire had warned of impending massacres three months earlier, but was ignored by the UN Security Council.
Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, then-head of UN peacekeeping, writes in his memoir: “We spent days frantically lobbying more than 100 governments. I called dozens myself ... We did not receive a single serious offer. It was one of the most shocking and deeply formative experiences of my entire career.”
Scarred by memories of Vietnam and Somalia, the US government did not publicly use the word genocide until May 25 and even then diluted its impact by saying “acts of genocide.”
Former US president Bill Clinton has since described it as “my personal failure.”
In his millennium report of 2000, Annan laid down a challenge: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”
The result five years later was a UN doctrine, Responsibility to Protect, adopted as a “norm” for dealing with conflicts where civilians were under attack.
It was invoked in the deployment of peacekeeping troops to Darfur a year later and has since been referenced in UN debates on Libya, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Yemen, Syria and the CAR.
However, whereas the 1990s had brought Rwanda and Bosnia, the 2000s delivered a counter-weight in the form of Afghanistan and Iraq, both widely condemned as blundering adventures that exemplified the law of unintended consequences.
Annan was an outspoken critic of the US decision to oust former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Some analysts argued that, in effect, it canceled out Rwanda when it comes to weighing the balance of intervention.
“People are outraged, but it is on paper and when it comes to the practicalities they don’t want to move quickly, for example in Syria... The execution of the UN’s resolutions has not been vigorous. If it was not for France in Mali or the CAR, we would have had a genocide,” said Koffi Kouakou, a foreign policy expert at Wits University in Johannesburg.