Honor Rwandans with pledge to end genocide

The greatest tragedy of the Rwandan genocide will always be how easily it could have been prevented.

There will be no shortage of memorials next week to mark the 10-year anniversary of genocide in Rwanda. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called on people across the world to mark April 7, the day the killing began in 1994, with a minute of silence. It is only right that the anniversary be marked with solemn memorials in honor of the 800,000 who died. But those memorials will do little justice to the victims if they fail to unite the world around preventing the next genocide.

The greatest tragedy of the Rwandan genocide will always be how easily it could have been prevented. The Hutu extremists who carried out their bloody plan were armed with little more than machetes and transistor radios. A modestly sized peacekeeping force might have disarmed many of the killers and limited the bloodshed to isolated pockets. Instead, Western governments clung to the fiction that what was happening in Rwanda was not genocide, but chaotic tribal violence. U.S. and French troops were dispatched to rescue U.S. and French civilians, while Rwandans were left to fend for themselves.

Addressing a recent memorial conference in Rwanda, Annan reminded his listeners that the United Nations must meet the next genocide with resolve. While many procedural steps can be taken to build that resolve, including appointment of a special U.N. rapporteur on genocide, efforts must start with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. In an age of increasing globalization, the countries seeking to police the world must realize that with power comes responsibility. Genocide in sub-Saharan Africa should not be more tolerated than ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or tyranny in Iraq.

Rwanda is not the first genocide to be met with silence. In 1915 the world sat by idly as the Turks used the cover of World War I to massacre 1.5 million Armenians. Hitler recalled that silence on the eve of World War II and the Holocaust when he asked, “Who today still speaks of the massacre of the Armenians?” Building a global resolve to stop genocide is the best way to honor the dead and ensure that no one ever asks the same question about Rwandans.