7 April 2004 – With a minute of mournful silence, the ringing of the Peace Bell, the testimony of a tearful young survivor and expressions of regret and resolve from senior officials, the United Nations today commemorated the deaths of at least 800,000 Rwandans 10 years ago in the world’s biggest genocide since the Second World War.
The officials also looked at ways to prevent any repetition of similar horrors in the future.
"While we may look backwards, we must move forward," the President of the General Assembly, Julian Hunte of Saint Lucia, told a commemorative meeting which included the participation of the Security Council.
On 6 April 1994 an airplane carrying two Hutu officials, President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda and President Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi, was downed under conditions that have never been conclusively explained. The next day extremists among Rwanda's majority Hutus, who have said Belgian colonialism left them as second-class citizens, went on a 100-day campaign of killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus, using mainly machetes, clubs and garden hoes.
According to an independent, UN-authorized inquiry, key countries were operating under the shadow of peacekeeping failures in Somalia. Their forces evacuated their own civilian nationals and showed little or no political will to maintain a presence in Rwanda or to share information on the unfolding tragedy with the UN Force Commander in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dallaire of Canada, before they, too, left.
Ghanaian troops, under Deputy Force Commander Gen. Henry Kwami Anyidoho, remained, along with some Senegalese forces, notably the late Capt. Mbaye Diagne, to take whatever defensive action they could. Many of those who died had taken shelter at the peacekeepers' military posts, only to find themselves abandoned and defenceless.
The Rwandan Government recently put the final death toll at 937,000 men, women and children.
"What a pity it is that the deliberate killing of the President of Rwanda, together with the President of Burundi, would not have caused a nation to mourn, but instead would have resulted in 100 days of terror and violence, in full view of the United Nations and the world," Mr. Hunte said.
"What a pity it was that people could be targeted for assassination, that complicity could be all around, that the media could help to fuel the conflict."
The Security Council President for April, Ambassador Gunter Pleuger of Germany, said, "The genocide in Rwanda was a shock that moved the whole organization: it triggered some important innovations in peacekeeping, it defined the mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and it had a considerable impact on the work of the Security Council."
The Council was now giving increased attention to conflict prevention, addressing the root causes of conflict, including the impact of massive violations of human rights, sharpening its understanding of post-conflict peacebuilding, and combating impunity in relation to war crimes, he said.
Asserting that the UN is "serious about mastering the challenge" posed by the threat of genocide, he said the world's people should see this as a sign of hope. "In return, we will understand that your hope places on us the obligation not to fail you again," he said.
Deputy Secretary General Louise Fréchette, noting that Secretary-General Kofi Annan today in Geneva unveiled a plan to combat genocide, said it would spur the UN to improve its operations to prevent armed conflicts, protect civilians, end impunity for perpetrators and monitor warning signals.
The plan calls for the designation of a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide with a mandate including preventing mass murder and ethnic cleansing by reporting looming signs to UN bodies through the Secretary-General, Ms. Fréchette said.
"Right now, for example, we have abundant warning that something horrible is going on in the Greater Darfur region of Sudan," she said, urging access by humanitarian and human rights personnel to victims there. She also noted that the Secretary-General has said if this access is denied, the international community should be prepared to act swiftly in response.
Speaking by satellite television, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said his Government had adopted a two-pronged approach to "banish the ideology of genocide."
"One approach includes constitutional measures that prescribe punitive action against those who promote an ideology of hate, intolerance and division within our communities," he said.
"The other approach includes implementing a proactive programme aimed at promoting national unity and reconciliation and encouraging open and frank discussions about the costly mistakes of the past to ensure that they are not repeated."
Genocide survivor Jacqueline Murekatete described how neighbours her relatives trusted came and killed them. The dying had not yet ended, however, she said, because one of the heinous crimes committed in 1994 was the mass rape of women, many of whom had contracted HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, orphans roamed the streets, she added.
Other speakers included representatives of the African Union, the African Group, the Asian Group, the Latin American and Caribbean Group, and the Western European and Others Group, interrupted for a minute of silent mourning at noon.
Performing songs of mourning and of hope were Rwandan singer Cécile Kayirebwa and the New York group, the Boys Choir of Harlem.
At a solemn march outside the UN building, Under-Secretary-General for Management Catherine Bertini told a crowd of hundreds of staff members, "Each of us remembers what we saw on television, our growing horror as we began to grasp the enormity of what was happening and our frustration at the inability of the international community to act effectively."
Calling the 100-day massacre "the most flagrant and incontrovertible instance of genocide that humanity had witnessed in half a century," she said the genocide had left scars on the UN and its standing in public opinion.
She rang the UN's Peace Bell, a gift from the Government of Japan, to signal the start of the minute of silence, prior to which staff members walked in a giant circle before the Secretariat Building.