Alain Destexhe, the Belgian Senator who initiated the 1997 Belgian Senatorial Commission of Inquiry into the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, has described as “exceptional” the ongoing trial in Brussels in which the Belgian State and two of the most senior military officers who led a Belgian peacekeeping contingent in Rwanda in 1994 are defendants.
In the civil appeal case before the Court of Appeal in Brussels, the petitioners want court to recognise the legal responsibility of Belgium and the two officers in the decision to withdraw Belgian troops from the former ETO Kicukiro technical school in Kigali where thousands of Tutsi had found refuge during the Genocide.
On April 11, 1994, the Belgian soldiers abandoned between 2,000 and 4,000 persons who had found refuge at the ETO Don Bosco School in Kigali, then the main cantonment of the Belgian UN troops, said Destexhe, who also doubles as a member of the Brussels regional parliament.
He says: “The Belgian contingent formed the backbone of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) but was ordered to pull out of the country following the murder on April 7 of ten Belgian soldiers by government forces”.
“In 1997, the report of the Committee of Inquiry of the Belgian Senate was very critical of the Belgian government at the time,” said Destexhe, who served as the secretary of the Belgian parliamentary inquiry into the Genocide two decades ago.
The question now, he says, “is whether a legal responsibility for what happened at ETO in Kigali will be recognised by a court”.
The trial takes place under the Belgian law of 1993, which “not only condemns the perpetrator of violations of the Red Cross Geneva Conventions on humanitarian law but also the failure to act when a person is in a position to act (“omission d’agir” in French) which was the case of the Belgian troops, the Belgian politician says in an OpEd sent to The New Times.
He drew parallels between the Belgian troops’ abandonment of the refugees at ETO – who were later attacked, shot and hacked to death by the then government forces and the Interahamwe militia – to a similar incident in Srebrenica (Bosnia) involving Dutch troops for which the Dutch government was later held responsible.
In July 2014, a court in the Netherlands found Dutch troops liable for the death of thousands of Muslim men and boys slaughtered by ethnic Serb troops during the end of the Bosnian war.
A battalion of Dutch UN peacekeepers (known as ‘Dutchbat’) was stationed in Srebrenica in 1995 and was found guilty of having “acted unlawfully” when it cooperated in the deportation of thousands of civilians in the former Yugoslavia.
Pronouncing itself on a petition from victims’ families, Dutch court ruled: “Dutchbat should have taken into account the possibility that these men would be the victim of genocide and it can be said with sufficient certainty that, had the Dutchbat allowed them to stay at the compound, these men would have remained alive”.
Like the ETO Kicukiro slaughter victims, the refugees in Bosnia were seeking refuge in and around the compound of the Dutch battalion, Senator Destexhe says.
Lawyers of some of the relatives of the victim in the ongoing case against the Belgian State and its officers have also drawn parallels between the two situations.
The ETO Kicukiro case first came up back in 2014 when Florida Ngulinzira, the widow of former Foreign Affairs minister, Boniface Ngulinzira, petitioned the Civil Court in Belgium for the death of her husband – one of the many victims of the attack on the technical school in the wake of the withdrawal of the Belgian blue berets.
Boniface Ngulinzira was opposed to President Juvenal Habyarimana.
“His life was clearly threatened after the shooting of the plane carrying the President and the beginning of the Genocide against the Tutsi,” says the Belgian senator.
On April 7, 1994, Ngulinzira was taken to the ETO school compound by the Belgian troops to “be protected” only to be abandoned there, along with the other victims, he says. “Almost all the refugees were murdered in Nyanza (a neighbourhood located a few kilometres from ETO, where many of the refugees were forced to walk to before they were killed).
The situation in Srebrenica was remarkably similar to what happened at the ETO in Kigali, the Belgian senator adds.
Several analysts had also described as a “landmark” the Dutch court’s ruling with regard to its implications on the case of Belgian troops abandoning Rwandan refugees at ETO even as marauding killing squads were outside the compound waiting to pounce.
Destexhe also faults Belgian troops for not considering other options that could have saved the refugees when the peacekeepers decided to leave Rwanda.
He says they could have opted to put the refugees under the protection of the RPF forces – the then now President Paul Kagame-led liberation army that eventually defeated the genocidal regime and stopped the killings – that were already fighting the government forces and rescuing people in and around Kigali.
“This was not even considered because at that time, the Belgian and UN approach was to remain “neutral” at all costs, even at the cost of thousands of lives,” he says.
The Belgian peacekeepers, Destexhe says, could also have “evacuated ETO refugees to the airport or to the Amahoro stadium in Kigali for them to be protected by other components of the UNAMIR”.