15 Dec 2016

From Rwanda to Aleppo: a history of inaction

Every few hours I check my WhatsApp feed from the doctors in East Aleppo. They post videos of injured children and a combination of eyewitness news and desperate messages: “Iran militia shot the convoy,” “The regime forces are still angry, I may die tens times now,” “Warplane with heavy machine gun attacking right now.”

Injured boys at a field hospital after airstrikes on the rebel held areas of Aleppo, Syria November 18, 2016.

It takes me back to April 1994, when I sat, terrified, in my house in Kigali listening to Rwandan friends who called to tell me about the slaughter in their neighbourhoods. Monica dictated to me her last words to pass onto her husband, Marcel, who was travelling. As it happened, she survived, but their five children, who were staying with their grandparents, were murdered. These are not easy memories.

A few years later, Samantha Power, then Professor of Human Rights Practice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Governance, published a book called A Problem from Hell; America and the Age of Genocide. Her thesis, simply put, was that in the face of mass slaughter the USA has a moral and legal obligation to intervene. America did nothing when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds in Halabja, nor during the genocide in Rwanda nor the massacre of 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in Bosnia the following year.

Last week, Power, now US Ambassador to the UN, made an impassioned and futile speech in the Security Council.

“Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo,” she said. She pointed the finger at Syria, Russia and Iran.  “When one day there is a full accounting of the horrors committed in this assault of Aleppo – and that day will come, sooner or later – you will not be able to say you did not know what was happening. You will not be able to say you were not involved. We all know what is happening. And we all know you are involved,” she said.

Generals say there is always a tendency to fight the last war – in other words, to base your strategy on what the enemy did last time. Politicians are the same. They didn’t intervene in Rwanda because they were still obsessed with the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, where a US helicopter was shot down and the pilots killed and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Similarly, after the debacles in Iraq and Libya, President Obama had no appetite for intervention in Syria despite the entreaties of Power and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Yet non-intervention has consequences too, political as well as humanitarian. By not intervening in Syria, including refusing to punish President Bashar al Assad when he crossed the ‘red line’ and used chemical weapons against civilians, Obama signalled that he would cede influence in the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin was ready to fill the space. Many Americans (and Europeans) are against intervention these days, but it’s important to understand that if the US doesn’t, someone else will. Many object to the way the US wields power in the world, but the alternative is not no-one wielding power, it’s Russia, or maybe in the future, China, dictating terms.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.

At this point it’s very hard to see what, beyond pushing for safe corridors and ceasefires, the US and European governments can do. It’s too late for the kind of intervention that might have established a ‘no-fly zone’ to protect civilians, and far too late for robust support to the non-Islamist rebels who have dwindled in number. There’s no guarantee that either tactic would have worked. A Syrian journalist I know just emailed me: “All what we want now is just to get the besieged people out, then everything would be whatever.”

Two years after the genocide in Rwanda I stood in a court in Arusha, Tanzania, and testified to what I had seen in those terrible, unforgettable days. Journalists usually refuse to appear as witnesses, but I felt that I had been in a unique situation, the only foreign correspondent who had happened to be there when the genocide started, a helpless observer who had done nothing to save any lives. I was laying history to rest. Nearly all the organisers of the genocide in Rwanda were tried at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and most are still serving gaol sentences. That was something, but it was too late to save Marcel and Monica’s children and up to a million other Rwandans. And it is cold comfort to the people of Eastern Aleppo today.

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