144. Beware What You Wish For

So New Zealand has secured a two-year seat on the Security Council of the United Nations.  Congratulations to all the people – politicians and officials – who worked on the bid for the last ten years. To win so decisively on the first ballot is a tribute to their skill and tenacity and unity.


From January 2015 Jim McLay, our Permanent Representative, will sit at the big table, and get to have serious conversations about ISIS and Syria and Ebola and Iraq and Palestine and Crimea and …. and on and on.  I am sure that he will play a constructive role, and I sincerely hope that he will be effective.

Hope, but not expect.  I think it pays to have low expectations of the UN Security Council so that you don’t have too far to fall when even they are met with disappointment.

New Zealand was last a member of the Security Council between 1993 and 1994.  The Presidency rotates around the members each month , and as it happened Colin Keating, our Permanent Representative at the time, was President of the Council in April 1994.

On 6 April 1994 an aircraft carrying the Rwandan President Habyarimana was shot down as it descended into Kigali.

And thus began the Rwandan genocide: 100 days of slaughter by Hutu extremists against their Tutsi and insufficiently-extremist Hutu neighbours.  800,000 died in 100 days.

I do not blame you if you do not want to know the details of the outrage.  (‘Outrage’ is so small a word in relation to the size of this thing: but all the words in the world shrivel in comparison, so why quibble and scribble for something that simply does not exist?)

Even the barest details are more than enough to make you sick to the soul.  It ranks right down there with the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge for boggling the mind, trying to imagine how anyone could do such things.  If you need to look, start here. For a comprehensive narrative, Alison Des Forges‘ Leave None To Tell The Story is available as a pdf here. But be warned: it is awful, it is scarring.

Suffice to say that the international community – and the Security Council of the United Nations is meant to be the international community in situations like this, and further remember that New Zealand held the Presidency in April 1994 – did nothing to stop the massacres.

In fact, the international community did less than nothing: Belgium evacuated its troops from UNAMIR on 12 April after ten of her soldiers were brutally murdered. In June, France sent troops that actually protected the murderers’ retreat into Congo. And the United States government, under President Bill Clinton, twisted itself into a pretzel to avoid using the one word that mattered a damn – “genocide” – because they knew it would have brought the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide into play.

In April 2014, Colin Keating returned to the Security Council and gave a humble, dignified memorial of that time:

I will now turn to the efforts of New Zealand and the Czech Republic, with the support of Argentina and Spain, to name and condemn the genocide. Despite improved briefings by the Secretariat and the flow of information I was relaying to the Council from non-governmental organizations in the field, most of the permanent members were objecting. Their reasons varied, but the net result was that several members were blocking a draft presidential statement.

As the days wore on and the end of the month approached, New Zealand put in blue a draft resolution condemning the genocide. The words were drawn exactly from the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As President, I announced that unless there were agreement on a presidential statement based on the exact language of the Genocide Convention, I would convene an open meeting of the Council at 11.55 p.m. on Saturday 30 April and put the draft resolution to the vote. Ultimately, presidential statement S/PRST/1994/21 was agreed, condemning the atrocities in Rwanda, using all of the language that we had proposed from the Genocide Convention, but at the insistence of some permanent members, the specific word “genocide” was removed.

Ultimately, that is, we caved in and didn’t use the one word that mattered  a damn.

It is important to note that Mr Keating has been honoured by Rwandan survivors for his efforts. But there is no pride to be taken in having tried: the simple truth is that we all failed the victims of the genocide. It is only a question of degree.

When Mr McLay, as our representative, takes his seat at the Security Council in January, it would be worthwhile if he and we remembered April 1994. It might give us some humility to know that New Zealand, and New Zealanders, are not innately superior in the conduct of international relations, morally or intellectually.  If there is one thing that we can contribute it is our distance from the battlegrounds, which means we might be able to humbly offer a pinch of wisdom born of perspective.

And maybe, just maybe please God, give us the courage to say out loud the words that need to be said.

About Ned Davy

By hokey, the big fella’s tipped into his 50s. A rangy loose forward in his prime, good with the ball in hand, but rarely up with the play any more.
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