Belgian UN peacekeepers who abandoned hundreds of refugees to be killed by the Interahamwe militia during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda could be held accountable, an international law expert says.
The view by Dr Charity Wibabara comes after a court in the Netherlands ruled, last Wednesday, that the Dutch state was liable for the death of about 300 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
The Dutch court’s ruling is “a landmark case,” Dr Wibabara said, and “the Belgians can thus be held responsible for failing to protect the victims of slaughter as was their mandate and the UN is similarly responsible for not providing enough troops for peacekeeping.”
On April 11, 1994, Belgian peacekeepers serving under the then UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (Umamir), pulled out of ETO school in Kicukiro, Kigali, leaving behind about 2,000 Tutsi who were later killed by Interahamwe.
The loss suffered by relatives of people deported by the Bosnian Serbs from the Dutchbat (Dutch battalion) compound in Potocari in the afternoon of July 13, 1995, has similar traces of catastrophic abandonment with what happened at ETO Kicukiro and other parts of the country in 1994.
Dr Wibabara said: “Instead of protecting the Tutsi at ETO, the Belgian peacekeepers withdrew consequently leaving the victims at the mercy of their killers.”
“In reference to the court ruling in The Netherlands, the Belgian peacekeepers should have taken into account the possibility that the Tutsi at ETO would be the victims of genocide and that it can be argued with certainty that, had the Belgian troops remained at the place where the Tutsi were gathered, then the 2,000 Tutsi would have remained alive since the Interahamwe would have been afraid of committing crimes in the face of UN peacekeepers,” Wibabara explained.
She added that, in principle, if peacekeepers are under the effective control of the UN, then the responsibility is attributed to the UN not withstanding the immunity provision in the UN charter that the UN enjoys.
“If the UN is not exercising effective control over the peacekeepers, the responsibility is attributed to the troop contributing country.”
In the Netherlands case, families of the victims had brought a case against the Dutch government over the killings, accusing Dutch UN peacekeepers of failing to protect 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered by ethnic Serb troops a few months before the end of the Bosnian war.
A battalion of Dutch peacekeepers was stationed at Srebrenica in 1995. By cooperating in the deportation of these men, Dutchbat – the Dutch force under the nominal control of the UN in the former Yugoslavia “acted unlawfully”, according to the court ruling.
The court ruled that: “Dutchbat should have taken into account the possibility that these men would be the victim of genocide and that it can be said with sufficient certainty that, had the Dutchbat allowed them to stay at the compound, these men would have remained alive”.
The tiny Muslim enclave was under UN protection until July 11, 1995 when it was overrun by ethnic Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic, now on trial for genocide and war crimes over the war in Bosnia, including the Srebrenica Massacre.
Genocide researcher Tom Ndahiro said the ruling on Wednesday was “a reminder to the Belgians that they were not mere bystanders, but complicit to a genocide in Rwanda”.
“Unlike the Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica, the Belgians left thousands of the Tutsi in the hands of machete wielding Interahamwe ready to strike the earliest possible. The UN will have to answer several questions on Rwanda,” Ndahiro said.
“The judgment is an awakening to the world community and the UN in particular. The much touted R2P (‘Responsibility to Protect) by the UN, same as responsibility to prevent the genocide, must be held as a reality rather than political slogans for media consumption”.
Observers of the Dutch court’s ruling are also pondering the possible ramification to world peacekeeping, as the ruling may, undoubtedly, pose legal risks for countries involved in international peacekeeping operations.
In principle, under international law, the UN enjoys immunity in all partner states, says Dr. Wibabara. Thus, she stressed, when UN peacekeepers are involved in the violation of human rights by commission or omission, they can be prosecuted under the national laws of their countries but cannot be prosecuted in the host country.
“They are responsible for protecting the population in conflict areas where usually various human rights abuses are being committed against the target groups.”
Unsuccessful search for justice
Dr Wibabara said that in the case of Eto–Kicukiro massacre, if the effective control was under Belgium as a troop contributing country, then a case can be filed against the country.
“The competent courts to hear the case would be in Belgium, the home country of the peacekeepers and the competent persons to file the case would be the victims of the Genocide in Rwanda who, under international law, have a right to claim for damages and reparations for the losses suffered,” Dr Wibabara added.
Three of the not more than 100 ETO-Kicukiro survivors, who talked to The New Times, remain bewildered, annoyed and distressed by the international community’s abandonment which, they say, started in 1994 and continues todate.
Florida Mukeshimana and Marie-Agnès Umwali took their case to Belgian courts over six years ago but it has dragged on.
Umwali, who in 2010 appeared as a witness in court, told The New Times: “Our case is about abandonment. But my worry is, will they (Belgians)ever accept their culpability? The case is taking too long and maybe, it could be the politics. I think suing a country is not easy especially when you are coming from a poor country like Rwanda.”
Venuste Karasira, another ETO Kicukiro survivor, says his personal efforts to seek justice were futile. In 1996, he wrote to the UN but his petition never got heard or at least was nor responded to.
“Nothing ever came of it. I think that, if possible, they (Belgian government) could do something in terms of reparations because they are the ones who ordered their soldiers to leave us. They left us in danger when they were well aware death was hovering around us,” Karasira said.
Karasira, who lost his right arm during the Genocide, says Belgian troops ignored never-ending pleas by the terrified Tutsi at the camp.
Speciose Kanyabugoyi, another ETO survivor, says she is always alarmed by the way in which the international community continues to abandon Rwanda and the survivors.
“It is not only Belgium, but all countries and governments that continue to defend Genocide denial and perpetrators. What hurts more is that we were abandoned in 1994 and we continue to be in 2014,” Kanyabugoyi said.
“The UN has never done anything for the survivors of ETO-Kicukiro. Could it be a case of double standards that a case of 1995 is given attention and not the one of 1994?” she wondered.
First appeared in the New Times Rwanda