France’s decision to pull out of the commemorations of the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda has cast an unfortunate stain on this sombre event. The French feel that they have to absent themselves now that Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has given a blistering interview to a francophone African newspaper, accusing the French government under Francois Mitterrand of having been complicit in the slaughter by Hutu militias of around 800,000 minority Tutsis in 1994.
France’s role in the horrific events in Rwanda is certainly murky. Mitterrand was a staunch ally to the Hutu regime that carried out the slaughter and France then provided safe passage for the Hutu militias out of Rwanda when they fled, after the regime collapsed. Until this year, when a French court jailed Pascal Simbikangwa for 25 years for his role in the slaughter, the government had resisted all attempts to bring the many suspected genocidaires present on French soil to justice, or allow their extradition to Rwanda. No wonder survivors in Rwanda feel bitter. That Mr Kagame is a virtual dictator does not mean France has no questions to answer.
However, it would be tragic if a diplomatic dispute between France and Rwanda was allowed to overshadow the wider significance of this anniversary. Whatever the French agenda was, the fact is that the whole world stood by as this appalling butchery unfolded over 100 days in April and May 1994.
Moreover, it does seem as if a kind of subliminally racist attitude – that massacres in Africa do not really count – played a part in this apparent indifference. The United States could easily have stepped in to stop the carnage – Rwanda is the size of Wales. It did nothing, although at least Bill Clinton, who was then the US President, has had the decency to sound contrite about this failure.
In the aftermath of the disastrous interventions in Libya and Iraq, it is understandable that people many feel that Western countries should never again involve themselves militarily in far-off conflicts. The horrific events in Rwanda in 1994 are reminder that there are times when outside intervention is the only way to stop complete carnage.