Rwanda: What humanitarians need to remember 25 years on
“ ‘We must do better’ commitments and initiatives have not helped much”
by Ben Parker
The 1994 Rwandan genocide led to soul-searching among the diplomatic, human rights, and humanitarian communities. The aid response was found to be poorly coordinated, politically adrift, and focused on the wrong things. Twenty-five years on, what lessons did humanitarians learn, and can remembering them help deal with today’s emergencies?
“The post-Rwanda ‘we must do better’ commitments and initiatives have not helped much, for example, in crises such as Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, South Sudan,” said Norah Niland, a former UN humanitarian official who worked on Rwanda at the time. “It’s distressing.”
On 6 April, 1994, extremists in the Rwandan government unleashed a pre-planned campaign that left up to a million dead in 100 days. Army, militia, and civilians targeted the country’s ethnic Tutsi minority, moderates from the Hutu majority, and smaller groups. They were stopped only by a rebel takeover.
Fleeing the advancing rebels, and fearful of reprisals, killers and their families were among over two million refugees who fled Rwanda. Of that total about 800,000 arrived near the Zairean city of Goma. Their arrival in muddy and insanitary conditions triggered a deadly cholera outbreak and a frenzy of media attention. Dozens of aid groups rushed to help.
This, the most visible and costly relief operation related to the genocide, did save lives. But it also helped entrench a genocidal militia in exile because the killers and members of former army units were not weeded out.
With a few notable exceptions, international efforts within Rwanda’s borders did little to protect civilians from harm during the genocide, nor immediately to help the displaced or the survivors of physical and mental trauma, including sexual violence. The aid was slower to arrive, and smaller in scale than the high-profile Goma operation.
Rwanda was not strategically important to the international community, and Western appetite for intervention was minimal, especially after the bloody fiasco of “Black Hawk Down” in Mogadishu six months earlier. Scarce international interest in the continent had been grabbed by South Africa’s upcoming first democratic elections. In addition, the gravity of the situation was not immediately grasped. Early media reports mischaracterised it as a “‘tribal war’ and an act of spontaneous violence and primordial hatred.”
UN peacekeepers stationed in Rwanda could have done more. The commander of a lightweight force stationed in Rwanda, Roméo Dallaire, had been telling his HQ in New York since that January that he had specific evidence of planned killings. The UN did not act on the warning signs and were largely terrorised into passivity after 10 Belgian peacekeepers were mutilated and killed on 7 April. Instead of leading the UN to scale up its peacekeeping numbers and posture, the Security Council, unable to stomach the losses, scaled them down.
A January 1994 fax to New York from UN peacekeeping commander Roméo Dallaire in Rwanda warned of plans for massacres. His request to take action was denied.
During the first three months of the genocide, only a handful of international aid groups found it possible to work where killings continued, among them the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose staff say they saved some 80,000 lives. As rebels advanced from the Ugandan border, other aid agencies had better access in the northwestern areas that came under their control. Access gradually opened up after rebels took the capital, Kigali, in July.
Some 15 aid agencies were able to provide relief to civilians and displaced people in the southwest, secured by a French military “safe haven” dubbed “Operation Turquoise.” Advancing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels, however, accused the French — who had been aligned with the regime that planned the genocide — of slowing their progress and shielding genocidaires, so allowing more killings to take place. Military victory by the Tutsi-led RPF effectively ended the genocide by the end of July.
The extent of killings by the RPF in the course of the campaign remains contested — Human Rights Watch says “thousands” were killed (against the hundreds of thousands killed by the genocidal forces) but adds that independent scrutiny was difficult because the RPF tightly controlled access for researchers and journalists.
The incoming Rwandan government, including then rebel commander Paul Kagame, took a jaundiced view of the international community, regarding the UN as “hopeless”, all of which set the tone for years to come. By 1996, the government was “frustrated and angered” at the role of international NGOs, and expelled dozens, according to a donor review.
Aid agencies showed “incredible naivety” about their complicity in sustaining the fleeing “genocidaires”.
In the first years after the genocide, donors were wary of the new regime, although Rwanda later won donor support for rapid growth and poverty reduction, despite its authoritarian politics. Speaking at the UN in 2000, Kagame said “international agencies seem more effective in reacting to humanitarian crises, but are wholly inadequate in assisting affected countries in the aftermath of conflicts.”
Goma and ‘neutralism’
“Among the most flagrant abuses of international relief in modern times.”
That was the verdict of the refugee aid operation in “Humanitarianism Unbound”, the widely cited November 1994 paper by Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, investigating the genocide for the now-defunct human rights advocacy NGO African Rights.
Briton Katherine Conlon, an aid worker in Goma with Médecins Sans Frontières at the time, said the intensity of the daily work left “no room to contemplate the bigger picture”. Each working day, she said, her job was to count corpses at the side of the road and then select cholera patients for rehydration from thousands lying on open ground.
In retrospect, Conlon said, aid agencies showed “incredible naivety” about their complicity in sustaining the fleeing “genocidaires”. She noted that aid agencies in Goma had “the world’s media at their fingertips”, which helped them raise an “inordinate amount of funds”.
Things started to come into focus for Conlon a few weeks into her assignment. As a vaccination drive began, she saw “well-built guys at the front of the queue, in uniform, carrying fat kids”. She remembers thinking, “hang on a minute, what?” But then, faced with the task of vaccinating 2,000 children a day, she decided that preventing further epidemics was her focus despite what she suspected: military elements controlled and intimidated the refugees.
In November 1994, MSF France pulled out, denouncing “Western inaction over genocide prosecution and shortcomings of ‘aid-only’ response to world crisis.” The ethics of that decision provoked intense debate, when women and children made up a majority in the camps, not least between MSF France and other chapters.
The African Rights paper argued that Rwanda was an extreme example of “the hazards of politically blind humanitarianism”. The authors charged that NGOs had demonstrated “cynical defeatism and naiveté” because they did not actively speak out and so “fudged” the Rwandan genocide.
Omaar and de Waal argued that a misguided aim for “neutralism” led to a missed opportunity for aid groups to take a moral stand and address “fundamental political and human rights concerns”. Instead, they said, NGOs unrealistically called for a ceasefire, for more UN troops and political talks; none of which, had they taken place, would have stemmed the slaughter.
An influential evaluation of the Rwanda humanitarian response published in 1996 looked at what went wrong and made far-reaching recommendations on how donors, aid agencies, and the UN could do better in future.
The study, The Joint Evaluation of Emergency Assistance to Rwanda, found that more than 200 aid groups operated in a “policy vacuum”, without strong coordination and in the absence of a coherent parallel response from political, military, and diplomatic players.
“Humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action,” the report stated — a phrase repeated many times since.
“It’s appropriate that that line stuck,” John Borton, who led the humanitarian part of the evaluation, said in an interview. The line, he explained, refers to the “willingness to write cheques… but not to commit troops and… not to thrash out in the [UN] Security Council what the appropriate international community response should be.”
“The system has improved in technical efficiency terms, in terms of the big issues… values, neutrality, no, humanitarian managers and leaders are still too careerist and don’t have the courage to take a stand or speak up.”
Borton said that while some of the report’s findings were acted upon, including the uptake of technical standards and coordination, others, including duplications and inefficiencies, remain unaddressed and still resonate in today’s humanitarian system.
The most radical proposals, such as establishing a single UN super-relief agency, proved too bold for the international community, he noted. “Even now, UN agencies are still competing,” he said, pointing at cash-based aid as one example of enduring rivalry.
The UN’s coordination capacity — described in the report as a “hollow core” — has gradually become much stronger, Borton said, but it was the study’s recommendations on professional standards that met with the most success, spurring the beginning of the Sphere standards and associated initiatives to try to keep up a verifiable level of quality in relief work.
The Rwandan genocide caused a “shock to the system”, Borton said, but the changes that came in its wake were largely “managerial”.
Some areas that were called out have become worse. For example, after the Cold War ended, the number of NGOs proliferated in the 1990s, but today “it’s got a lot worse”, Borton said, with even more aid groups rushing into subsequent crises, including the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
The report warned, correctly, that members of the military who took refuge in the camps would stir up trouble. That legacy of instability in eastern Congo persists today.
So, has much changed in the humanitarian system since Rwanda?
For Mukesh Kapila, former UN humanitarian coordinator for Sudan and author of a book on the war in Darfur, that depends.
“My own conclusion from subsequent experience is that the system has improved in technical efficiency terms, i.e. we have more tools, technology, methodologies, and organisational framework,” said Kapila, who was posted to Rwanda by the UK aid ministry in 1994. “In terms of the big issues… values, neutrality, no, humanitarian managers and leaders are still too careerist and don’t have the courage to take a stand or speak up.”