Linda Melvern analyses the failure of the international community in Rwanda

In the course of a few terrible months in 1994 up to one million people were killed in Rwanda. It was slaughter on a scale that the world has not seen since the Nazi extermination programme against the Jews. The killing rate in Rwanda was five times that achieved by the Nazis. The killing in Rwanda was vicious, relentless and incredibly brutal. The stories of betrayal, of insensate cruelty, of human suffering, are reminiscent of Treblinka or Babi Yar. But there was nothing secret about it. There were no sealed trains or secluded camps. Unlike the Holocaust, far from trying to conceal what was happening, the killing took place in broad daylight. It was broadcast on the radio, and the people were psychologically prepared for months, and were ordered and coerced to carry out the extermination. The killing went on for three months.

The failure of the international community to act during these three months is perhaps the most shocking international scandal of the post-war era. What happened in Rwanda showed that despite the creation of an organisation to prevent genocide - and the United Nations is central to this task - it failed to do so, even when the evidence provided was indisputable. The complicity of western nations, the failure to intervene, and the suppression of information about what was actually happening, is a shocking indictment.

The international community, which passed laws fifty years ago with the specific mandate of ensuring that genocide was never perpetrated in the world again, not only failed to prevent it happening in Rwanda but also, by pumping in funds to help the Rwandan economy, actually helped to create the conditions that made it possible. The whole of the international community was involved in Rwanda while a genocide was planned - the United Nations and many of its agencies, independent aid groups, and two of the most powerful international institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This was no remote African episode, beyond the control of the outside world.

Rwanda was the subject of a Structural Adjustment Programme and some $US216 million international funding had been earmarked for Rwanda, some of it from the European Union, and with sizeable bilateral contributions from France, Germany, Belgium, and the US. For three years money from this international funding was successfully diverted by the Hutu regime to acquire weapons and the agricultural tools used during the genocide.

To understand how people came to believe the extremists' propaganda that their survival depended upon the physical elimination of the Tutsi it is necessary to consider the history of Rwanda and the years of manipulation of the race card in Rwandan politics, a legacy of Belgium's colonial rule.

No explanation of the genocide is complete without mention of Rwanda's history of institutionalised, state-sponsored racism.

Rwanda, a country the size of Wales, was once known as the pearl of Africa, a mountainous country that was poor, remote and reliant on agriculture. The first European visitor to the court of the Rwandan king was a German count, Gustav Adolf Von Gotzen. It was 1894, exactly one hundred years before the genocide. Von Gotzen found that in Rwanda the population was divided into three groups, the Hutu, the Tutsi and the Twa. These groups were not tribes for the people shared the same religion, told the same stories, and spoke the same language. There was intermarriage. The Tutsi were traditionally the political and economic elite for they owned cattle; the Hutu cultivated the fields. After the First World War the western provinces of German East Africa was given to Belgium under a League of Nations mandate. It was the Belgians who designated the Tutsi as civilised and the Hutu inferior and politicised the differences. The Belgians introduced a system of identity cards containing provision for ethnic identification. In 1959, resentful of the hold on power by the Tutsi group, and encouraged by Belgian missionaries, the Hutu rose up and overthrew the Tutsi monarchy. It is estimated that 20,000 Tutsi were killed as a result and 160,000 fled to neighbouring states. A failed attempt in 1963 by Tutsi to return by force resulted in widespread reprisals, described at the time by Bertrand Russell as the most horrible and systematic murders since the Nazis.

For the next thirty years, Rwanda was ruled by Hutu politicians. It became a one-party state operating an apartheid system against Tutsi. The one problem never seriously addressed was the fate of Rwandans living outside the country, the Tutsi exiles who had fled during anti-Tutsi campaigns. The exact number of refugees had always been disputed but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, (UNHCR) estimated that by 1990 there were 900,000 people living in camps in Uganda, Burundi, Zaire, and Tanzania. This was Africa's largest refugee problem and like the Palestinians, these people were stateless; they were denied the right of return to their country. That an army would be created to force a refugee return was predictable.

The guerrilla army that was eventually created, the Rwandan Patriotic Army, was unique for its recruits came from the armed forces of another country - Uganda. Thousands of Tutsi refugees had signed up with Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army, (NRA), an army that had taken Kampala by force in January 1986. Most of Museveni's officer corps was Rwandan.

On October 1, 1990 the RPF invaded Rwanda, the soldiers taking equipment and arms from Uganda. The aims of this army were set out in an eight-point programme that included a return to Rwanda for the refugees, an end to Rwanda's ethnic divide and the system of compulsory identity cards. The RPF wanted democracy for Rwanda. This invasion was quickly repulsed, with the help of the Rwandan regime's great ally, France. A three-year civil war ensued causing devastation to the already fragile Rwandan economy, and creating an estimated 600,000 internally displaced people. It was thanks only to international pressure that in 1993 negotiations began between the government of Rwanda and the RPF, pressure that came from Belgium, the USA and the Organisation of African Unity. It took thirteen months of talks for an agreement to be signed and the agreement, the Arusha Accords, provided for radical change and wide-ranging political, military and constitutional reform leading to power-sharing. Rwanda's transition period, the time agreed for the end of dictatorship and the creation of democracy, was to be monitored by UN peacekeepers.

In peacekeeping, the transition period, when warring factions vie for power, is the most dangerous. It is the time used by extremists to make the most of the vacuum, to derail peace. In the case of Rwanda by the time the UN peacekeepers arrived it was already too late for the Hutu extremists had other plans. Under the peace agreement these extremists stood to lose their position, power and privilege. And so in order to avoid power-sharing with the Tutsi, they decided to plot to kill them. The 1994 genocide, like that of the Holocaust, was the product of deliberate political design, and even while the peacekeepers were setting up their headquarters, the plans for the slaughter were well advanced.

In spite of the considerable press attention given the January 11 fax from the Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), the Canadian Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire, containing information from an informer that a genocide was planned, there were in existence many more dire warnings. What is surprising to discover is that that none of these warnings were ever presented to the members of the UN Security Council whose fifteen member states were responsible for creating the UN peacekeeping mission for Rwanda, deciding how much it would cost and what it would do.

While the permanent members with their considerable intelligence gathering ability had some knowledge of what was prepared, and particularly the governments of France and the US, no specific information was ever shared with the non-permanent members on the Council. Neither was information shared with the force commander of the peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, (UNAMIR). "We were blind and deaf in the field", the Canadian Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire told me in an interview in September 1994. Dallaire was not to know how well informed US intelligence circles were; in January 1994 the CIA had given the State Department an analysis which warned that if hostilities resumed, upwards of half a million people would die.

There was more public information. Human rights groups reported extensively on massacres of Tutsi in Rwanda: in January 1991 and February 1992 there had been exact descriptions of the involvement of military and local government officials in organised slaughter. In January 1993, the violence in Rwanda was so terrible that a group of human rights experts from ten countries travelled there to collect testimony. In March a report was produced that showed how in the previous two years the racist and extremist Hutu government had killed 2,000 of its own people, all Tutsi. There were death squads operating and some 10,000 Tutsi and members of the political opposition had been arrested or detained without charge. One French journalist had reported: "the death squads are operating a genocide against the Tutsi as though it were a public service".

In August 1993 a UN Commission on Human Rights Report revealed that the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was applicable to Rwanda. The report revealed that in Rwanda a powerful elite, desperate to cling to power and avoid democracy was fuelling ethnic hatred. The massacres that took place in Rwanda were planned and prepared with the names of victims broadcast on the radio. The author of this report, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions was Bacre Waly Ndiaye. He said later that if he had been consulted by the Security Council he would have said that their mission for Rwanda was too weak to make any difference. He would have recommended effective measures to protect civilians against organised massacres. For all the attention his report received, he said, he might as well have put it in a bottle and thrown it into the sea.

The Belgium government was well informed, with considerable information from its embassy in Kigali, and from a small intelligence cell attached to the Belgium peacekeeping units. Belgium had contributed 450 soldiers. The Belgium Foreign Ministry cabled their UN ambassador in New York: "It would be unacceptable if Belgian troops were to find themselves as passive witness to a genocide about which the UN would do nothing". Their ambassador was instructed by his government to lobby to reinforce the peacekeepers in Rwanda but he was told that there would be no increase in the mission for Rwanda because the US and the UK were opposed for financial reasons. Both these permanent members had been reluctant about the creation of UNAMIR and had argued that the UN was over stretched. The US had wanted only a symbolic UN presence in Rwanda. In the Council there had been arguments in favour of helping Rwanda, particularly from the Nigerian Ambassador, Ibrahim Gambari. Rwanda was one of the poorest countries in the world and the US had encouraged Rwanda to democratise. There was a moral obligation to see Rwanda through its transition.

In the first few months of 1994 Rwanda became increasingly violent and the Force Commander of UNAMIR, the Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire asked for reinforcements. No troops were available from anywhere. He lacked sandbags, petrol, and even petty cash and at one point he was obliged to borrow money from another UN agency. The mission lacked essential personnel - no humanitarian or human rights experts, no public affairs officers. Dallaire had estimated he would need 4,500 troops. The Security Council agreed 2,500.

How half-hearted was the Security Council's commitment to Rwanda was plain to see. Dallaire wanted to be allowed to seize weapons. If arms continued to be distributed - an estimated 85 tons of munitions were spread around the country - then his peacekeepers would be unable to carry out their mandate. Permission to seize weapons was denied by officials in the UN Secretariat and Dallaire tried many times to persuade them otherwise. In his cables in the weeks immediately before the genocide Dallaire used the phrase "the situation is deteriorating rapidly" eleven times.

"Genocide", one of the Polish peacekeepers said, "hung in the air". So terrified were the Tutsi that some left the country, and others prepared emergency evacuation. In Kigali the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins sans Frontières began contingency planning for a huge number of casualties.

But in New York the Clinton administration was so fed up with the lack of progress towards peace in Rwanda and the continual delays in the peace process that US pressure was put on Security Council members to close the mission altogether. On April 5, 1994 the Security Council met to decide what to do about its mission to Rwanda and in a formal and open meeting it was unanimously agreed to send a message to Rwanda; unless the transitional institutions provided for under the Arusha Accords were established within the next six weeks then UNAMIR would pull out completely.

Within hours of this vote the President of twenty years, Juvenal Habyarimana had been killed and over the airways in Kigali, via the hate-radio RTLMC, "the Tutsi" were immediately blamed for his death. The genocide began and the world turned away. The extremists were safe in the knowledge that outside interference would be at a minimum. In one telling broadcast over the hate radio an announcer had said: "Stand up, take action… without worrying about international opinion".

In Rwanda, the anger and bitterness against the UN will last for decades. Hundreds of thousands of victims of genocide had thought that with the UN in their country they would be safe. Only by revealing the failures, both individual and organizational, that permitted it, can any good emerge for something so bleak and so terrible.