Reconsider conflict intervention models, says genocide scholar

Dr Mukesh Kapila some times introduces himself as one who witnessed the last genocide of the 20th century and the first one of the 21st century (The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and the Darfur genocide, respectively).

Dr Mukesh Kapila some times introduces himself as one who witnessed the last genocide of the 20th century and the first one of the 21st century (The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and the Darfur genocide, respectively).

In the second one, he was the United Nations country representative to Sudan and later a whistle blower as the UN failed to intervene. Dr Kapila today is a professor at Manchester University in the UK; he has experience in over 130 countries serving in senior positions in the British government and at the United Nations, and sits on boards of several international organisations, including Non-Violent Peace force. He was in Rwanda to talk about his Book; Against A Tide of Evil, The New Times Collins Mwai caught up with him for insights and his experiences in fighting atrocities. Below are Excerpts:


Part of the reason you are in Rwanda is to promote your book, Against A Tide of Evil, a book giving insights to the Rwanda and Sudan genocides and the reluctance of the International community to intervene. What led you to write the book?


It was difficult to write the book, I resisted writing it for a long time until  a friend convinced me to write not for myself but for other people who would be faced with  circumstances similar to mine.


Another reason to write the book was the 20th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and the 10th anniversary of Darfur.

It is not an academic manuscript. It is a life story. The book compels readers to put themselves in my shoes and reflect on what they would have done once   confronted by similar circumstances.

Mine was an accidental career,  I am a medical doctor by profession, which perhaps explains the reason why I picked interest in societal affairs. I worked in several international organisations that took me to places that shaped my life. I was in Rwanda during the Genocide and later in Sudan. Having experienced all this, I was deeply moved by the sense of failure on the side of the international community to protect innocent civilians. 

I am driven by the sense of failure. Having occupied senior positions in several organisations, I felt that bad things kept happening.  Meeting people who are survivors of atrocities and are resisting evil, gives me a certain kind of push, their resilience is admirable.

In Darfur, you were the head of UN in the country at the time. What transpired, why wouldn’t the UN intervene before damage was done?

I arrived in Sudan in 2003 as resident coordinator and was also representing the UK government as head of the humanitarian team. I was representing UN in the Naivasha peace talks as well as promoting humanitarian efforts.

We were all expecting peace to prevail and the agreements signed honoured. But Darfur atrocities began in April 2003 and got worse by the day. It reminded me of what I had seen in Rwanda ten years earlier.

My journey in Darfur in 2003 and 2004 had begun in Rwanda. I could recognise the patterns of violence. My observations and reactions were directly influenced by what I had seen and experienced in Rwanda. I knew how bad it could get and could tell that the violence in Darfur was of an ethnic nature.

As part of attempts to do something about the genocide, I shuttled between various capitals of the  world trying to get the international community  to intervene. I repeatedly tried to get my organisation involved in stopping the violence. I wrote several reports to the UN headquarters and went there personally to meet Kofi Annan.

They never believed me. They thought it was a hoax and feared  to annoy the government of Sudan. All this happened as atrocities were taking place, as lives were being lost and property destroyed.

I felt the institutions that ordinary people who are most vulnerable look up to for protection in desperate times had let them down. This was the second time it was happening under my watch, Rwanda and then Sudan.

At some point I had to go to the media, I told the story of what was going on in Darfur under the watch of UN and other organisations and their reluctance to intervene. I told the world of how they had been deaf to the calls for intervention. Soon it was global news in media houses across the world.

From these experiences, I learnt that we should not look up to external institutions for help, you look up to people you regard highly but they come down crashing. I also learnt never to rely on external intervention, every time people are threatened, they should look internally for solutions.

You were in Rwanda during the last days of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, what memories do you have and which lessons did you draw from that?

I witnessed the last genocide of the 20th century and as a senior diplomat witnessed the first genocide of the 21st century, only ten years apart.

I got here in July 1994, enroute from Uganda. When I got here, the city was dark and quiet, the dogs were howling as they fed off the dead bodies on the streets. The smell was indescribable. That was my first introduction to Rwanda.

The lesson I learnt from all the destruction I saw is that it is not institutions that fail or succeed, but the individuals that work in them. Furthermore, the higher the individual is placed, the greater is the personal responsibility on them to do the right thing. The implication is that if individual duty bearers are not held to account for their neglect, there are no incentives for their successors to do their duty, and failures will recur.

Having witnessed Rwanda’s reconstruction, what do you think was the greatest factor that contributed to recovery?

In any other situation of this sort, you would expect that the country would take a very long time to get back on its feet; one would say a couple of decades. What struck me is that in Rwanda the new government moved and acted fast to provide services to its people.

In many other places, the new governments terrorise the population and create chaos, but the new Rwandan government was mature and had wisdom; from day one, they acted swiftly to ensure order. I do not know of any other country in the world where the authorities have acted that well.

You are not a strong supporter of military intervention in peace keeping efforts, why?

Military peace intervention which is not part of a comprehensive package that includes political intervention, diplomatic intervention and economic interventions is useless. Peacekeeping is ineffective especially when there is no peace to keep. Another reason for the inefficiency is the difference in culture of the countries. Their approaches are very different even when they are under one command.  

Another reason I am skeptical is that peace keeping interventions are always a little too late. By the time of deployment, it is already  late and most of the damage has been done. In most atrocities by the time of mobilisation and deployment, two thirds of the victims have already lost their lives.

What intervention models  would you recommend?

There are no direct answers to this. But from experience, peace agreements cannot be imposed, you can get heads of delegations to sign agreements but at the end of the day, it is built from the bottom up.

Another thing to have in mind is that in all conflicts, there is a right time and place. Sad as it is, some conflicts are not ready for solving, they are like a fire; they can go on until the trigger runs out. What that means is that the intervention mechanisms are different and the only help that can come from outside is humanitarian and protection. In such conflicts, the solution comes from amidst the people.

I have come to believe that international interventions may not be useful unless there is an extreme case.

What is the role of justice and accountability systems after atrocities?

All the experiences show that accountability and justice has to be on the frontline of seeking peace. It should be as close to people as possible in terms of space and time. You cannot pursue peace while postponing justice.

In Rwanda’s case, the Gacaca courts were the only way to do it, they let the community judge with governing principles.

However, the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) was also important; a crime against humanity in one country is a crime against all of humanity. It was important that in addition to a local process you have an international process.

The experiment with transitional justice was effective and a turning point of the country; without it the country would probably be not where it was.

You have studied in depth conflicts across the world, including Africa, what have you discovered to be the cause of the repeated violence and conflicts in some countries?

Countries go back to conflict because they have faulty peace agreements and do not go down to address the root cause of the conflicts and the fighting.

The nature of governments after conflicts is also very important to consider. Governments have caused most of the African problems but without them, we cannot solve these problems either.

Good governments are supposed to be accountable to all people, this, however, does not mean you should go ahead and replicate the western style governments, British or American.

In South Sudan, the international community made that mistake, after the conflict. They said now that the country was independent, they were supposed to have a government, parliament as well as elected representatives.

That divided the country, what they needed was what Rwanda did after the Genocide, they needed a democratic process with a bottom up approach which has the ability  to unite the country. 

Rwanda did that and came out fine, post genocide countries should use the same model. The model adopted by South Sudan is more of a Western style of democracy, where the country is divided into two; government and opposition, making room for reoccurrence of violence.  

You have seen Rwandan peace keepers in action, how would you rate them?

It is great that Rwanda is contributing to peace keeping.  For a country that was let down by peacekeepers, Rwanda had a right  to walk away from peace keeping efforts. But contrary to what would be expected, they are leading in terms of forces contribution.  They said yes you let us down but we won’t let you down.

The trauma of the Genocide and experience probably has a lot to do with the performance of the forces on the ground because it probably gave them a different form of understanding.

The real legacy for the Genocide is not only for Rwanda, it is to share the lessons with institutions that failed the country like UN to try and make a difference.

In the protection of the population in atrocities, what is the one thing you hope people can learn?

When I came to Rwanda in 1994, I met a group of Indian nuns who had protected 2,000 Tutsi babies from the militiamen. When the Interehamwe stormed their Coventry asking for all the Tutsi babies who had been hidden there by their parents, they told the militiamen that the only way they would get the children was by killing them first. These were unarmed nuns ( 4 feet tall), but were  ready to sacrifice their lives.

Around the same time, at a school in Kicukiro Kigali (Ecole Technique Officielle), armed peacekeepers gave away 2,500 people who had run to the premises to hide there. When the militiamen surrounded the institution, the troops who the people had trusted with their lives took off leaving the people to be butchered. That day 2,500 people lost their lives.

The contrast of the two stories is that unarmed nuns saved lives while armed, trained peacekeepers gave away lives. 

Real strength, therefore, is not in the barrel of the gun, it is not about your size, it is about courage. When faced by such circumstances, I hope we can make the right choices with courage and choose to protect.

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