After Rwandan genocide, the world now failing Gaza

14 Apr, 2024 - 00:04 0 Views
After Rwandan genocide, the world now failing Gaza

The Sunday Mail

Chris McGreal

AS the war in Gaza grinds through its deadly sixth month and allegations of war crimes by Israel pile up, last week also marked 30 years since the world turned its back on Rwanda’s Tutsi minority.

The 100 days of killing that became known as the Rwandan genocide began on April 7, 1994. Hutu extremists murdered about 800 000 Tutsis while major powers, led by the United States, found reasons not to save them. Even as evidence of the atrocities mounted, Bill Clinton, who was the president at the time, ordered his own staff not to call the killings a genocide, because that would have drawn political and legal pressures for US intervention, and blocked the United Nations Security Council from sending troops to stop the slaughter.

The US was not alone.

French soldiers in Rwanda rescued foreigners and their pets but did nothing to save ordinary Tutsis.

Instead, France indulged its colonialist fantasies about regions of influence and sought to prop up the Hutu extremist government leading the genocide.

That abandonment allowed the killing to spread from Rwanda’s capital to the rest of the country and gave the Hutu regime a sense of impunity.

The organisers of the attempt to exterminate the Tutsis took the world’s indifference as a signal to carry on.

Four years after the genocide, Clinton went to Rwanda and offered a duplicitous apology in which he claimed that he and other leaders did not “fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror”.

In truth, there were a flood of reports to Washington about the scale of the killings, including from the US embassy in Kigali. For Clinton, African lives counted less than the political risks of trying to save them.

After the debacle of US soldiers killed in Somalia a year earlier, the US president worried that another foreign intervention might play badly in the midterm elections. The UN commander in Rwanda who pleaded for help, Lieutenant-Colonel Roméo Dallaire, said later that “President Clinton did not want to know”.

Guilt at the inaction prompted the UN to establish an international tribunal to try those who led the genocide.

The Rwanda trials, along with a parallel tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in turn paved the way for the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, with jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I reported from Rwanda during that terrible time; a few years later, it was gratifying to see the genocide’s perpetrators in the dock and watch as the tribunal handed down the first conviction for genocide — against Jean Paul Akayesu, the mayor of a commune — since international law made it a crime after World War II.

It took another decade to convict the mastermind of the genocide, Théoneste Bagosora, who was sentenced to life in prison following what prosecutors hailed as the most significant verdict of its kind since Nuremberg.

The trials of dozens of those most responsible for the genocide seemed to put down a marker that the world would no longer let crimes against humanity go unpunished, and that finally the promise of “never again” might be delivered.

The Rwandan genocide was also a spur for the establishment of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, adopted by all countries at the UN in 2005.

The doctrine obliges governments to act against immediate threats of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Earlier this month, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, marked the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide by acknowledging that his country and its allies could have stopped it but “lacked the will to do so”, even though evidence of the crime was staring them in the face.

But what is such a frank admission of culpability worth?

Three decades later, Israel’s leaders act with impunity towards Palestinians in Gaza, where undiscriminating ground attacks and bombing have killed twice as many civilians as Hamas fighters.

At least 22 000 women and children are dead, according to estimates from the Gaza ministry of health — more than 1 percent of the Gaza Strip’s population, with untold numbers missing under the rubble.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz recently reported that Israel has created “kill zones” in parts of Gaza, where “anyone who crosses into them is shot”, whether a combatant or not.

The Israel Defence Forces set allowances for the number of civilians who could be killed when striking a particular target.

Doctors have accused Israeli soldiers of targeting children.

Israel also stands accused of bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the brink of famine by severely limiting deliveries of food.

In addition, the bombardment has obliterated hospitals, schools, homes and roads. Large parts of the Gaza Strip are uninhabitable.

As the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Sunday last week, the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel “does not justify the horrific ongoing bombardment, siege and health system demolition by Israel in Gaza, killing, injuring and starving hundreds of thousands of civilians, including aid workers”.

He added: “The deaths and grievous injuries of thousands of children in Gaza will remain a stain on all of humanity.

“This assault on present and future generations must end.  “The denial of basic needs — food, fuel, sanitation, shelter, security and healthcare — is inhumane and intolerable.”

South Africa argued in its case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that Israel’s actions in Gaza are by intent and amount to genocide.  Its case pointed to the repeated statements by Israeli officials, sometimes in language that echoed Rwanda, that the assault on Gaza was about more than pursuing Hamas.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, set the tone by saying there were no innocent civilians in Gaza and “it’s an entire nation out there that is responsible”.

A senior military officer threatened ordinary Palestinians, calling them “human animals” and promising they would “get hell”.

Israeli troops were subsequently filmed chanting “no uninvolved civilians”.

Prominent members of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party used the Hamas attack to call for the ethnic cleansing of Gaza, where most Palestinians come from families driven out of what is now Israel during the mass expulsion of Arabs in 1948.

Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, ordered a “complete siege” of the territory with “no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed”.

Six months later, Gaza is on the brink of a manufactured mass famine.

Israel insists that it is acting proportionately and in accordance with international law. It blames civilian deaths on Hamas fighters using Palestinian civilians as human shields or embedding themselves in hospitals and schools.

Yet the assault on Gaza has never been just about fighting Hamas.

It also comes in the context of the Israeli right’s thirst for Palestinian land, the long dehumanisation of the Arab population and the pursuit of what the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem calls policies of “Jewish supremacy” and apartheid. The ICJ found that South Africa submitted plausible evidence that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

Amnesty International has described “alarming signs of genocide in Gaza”.

Others do not go so far as to call it genocide, which has a high bar of proving intent under the 1948 convention.

Human Rights Watch says Israel is committing “atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza” and war crimes, including by attacking residential buildings packed with civilians and using “starvation as a weapon of war”.

Oxfam has accused Israel of “indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, in violation of international humanitarian law”.

The former UK defence minister, Ben Wallace, described Israel as being on a “killing rage” and accused it of “collective punishment”, a war crime.

Calls for an arms embargo and other sanctions against Israel are growing.

But the US, the United Kingdom and others are failing to live up to their commitments under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine by imposing even these limited measures.

The ICC is also investigating events in Gaza and Israel’s longer-term conduct of the occupation, including construction of settlements as a war crime, in breach of the Geneva conventions, despite attempts by the US and Britain to claim the court does not have jurisdiction.

The ICC investigation is to be welcomed, but it will be completed too late to save those still facing bombs, bullets and famine in Gaza.  Israel’s close allies need to do more than wring their hands and live up to the lessons they claim to have learned in Rwanda.

Those same countries that said “never again” have given Israel a free pass over the past six months until, finally, the deaths of foreign aid workers stirred them to a degree of action.

But it is not enough.

In his mea culpa in Rwanda, Clinton said the world must act when faced with evidence.“Genocide can occur anywhere. It is not an African phenomenon and must never be viewed as such. We have seen it in industrialised Europe. We have seen it in Asia. We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence,” he said.

Words to live by.

Chris McGreal is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem.


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