Bloodshed And Whitewash: Britain And The Rwanda Genocide

The invasion of Iraq and the Hutton report are two sides of the same coin: the former shows that policies are made by a tiny cabal of people around the prime minister, impervious to public influence; the latter shows that this cabal is protected from serious accountability. Britain’s political system, clearly more totalitarian than democratic, can enable policy-makers to get away with murder, as the events of ten years ago show.

Next month is the tenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide that killed a million people. There has been astounding silence on one aspect of this slaughter – the culpability of British policy-makers.

A planned campaign of slaughter was launched by extremist Hutus in April 1994 to eliminate members of the Tutsi ethnic group and political opponents. The UN security council, instead of beefing up its peace mission in Rwanda and giving it a stronger mandate to intervene, decided to reduce the troop presence from 2,500 to 270. This decision sent a green light to the killers showing that the UN would not intervene.

It was Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Sir David Hannay, who proposed that the UN reduce its force; the US agreed. Both were concerned over a repetition of the events in Somalia seven months before when the UN peace mission had spiralled out of control. The Nigerian ambassador pointed out that tens of thousands of civilians were dying and pleaded to reinforce the UN presence. But the US and Britain objected, suggesting that only a token force of 270 be left behind.

The Rwandan government was sitting on the security council at the time, as one of ten non-permanent members. So British and US policy was reported back to those directing the genocide.

General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN force in Rwanda, was pleading for reinforcements and later spoke of “inexcusable apathy by the sovereign states that made up the UN, that is completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability”. He complained that “my force was standing knee deep in mutilated bodies, surrounded by the guttural moans of dying people, looking into the eyes of dying children bleeding to death with their wounds burning in the sun and being invaded by maggots and flies”.

The following month, with perhaps hundreds of thousands already dead, there was another UN proposal – to despatch 5,500 troops to help stop the massacres. This deployment was delayed by pressure mainly from the US ambassador, but with support from Britain. Dallaire believes that if these troops had been speedily deployed, tens of thousands more lives could have been saved. The US also ensured that this plan was watered down so that troops would have no mandate to use force to end the massacres.

The US and Britain also argued that before these troops could be deployed, there needed to be a ceasefire, even though one side was massacring innocent civilians. The Czech republic’s ambassador confronted the security council saying that wanting a ceasefire was “like wanting Hitler to reach a ceasefire with the Jews”. He later said that British and US diplomats quietly told him that he was not to use such inflammatory language outside the security council.

Britain and the US also refused to provide the military airlift capability for the African states who were offering troops for this force. The RAF, for example, had plenty of transport aircraft that could have been deployed.

Britain also went out of its way to prevent the UN using the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter. Accepting this would have obliged states to “prevent and punish” those guilty under the Geneva Convention. In late April, Britain, the US and China, secured a resolution rejecting use of the term genocide. A year after the slaughter, the Foreign Office sent a letter to an international inquiry saying that it still did not accept the term genocide, seeing discussion on whether the massacres constituted genocide as “sterile”.

All this information is in the public domain and has been brilliantly pieced together by journalist Linda Melvern in her book Rwanda: A People Betrayed. There has been virtual complete silence by the media and academics. An article just published in the journal African Affairs, by Melvern and Paul Williams of the University Birmingham, is the only academic analysis of Britain’s role in the slaughter.

Parliament has never been too bothered either. A debate in the House of Commons only took place two months after the slaughter began and there have been no parliamentary reports or even serious questions posed to the Ministers involved: Prime Minister John Major, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, Defence Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and Overseas Development Minister Lynda Chalker. Many of these figures continue to be happily interviewed by the media on their view of the moral and military issues involved in invading Iraq.

The British role in the genocide was more than turning a blind eye – Whitehall went out of its way to ensure the international community did not sufficiently act, and thousands more died as a result. Ten years on, Britain’s secretive and elitist political system continues to protect a previous generation of policy-makers like Hutton is protecting the current one. The public is not allowed even to have sufficient scrutiny over decision-making, let alone influence. Without fundamentally democratisating policy-making, and discarding its totalitarian features, what future horrors lie in stall?

Mark Curtis is author of Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003). His website is

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