NGOs and Small and Middle Powers

In the first weeks of the genocide, there was a severe dearth of information about what was going on in Rwanda. Small and middle powers, who did not have an extensive network of diplomatic missions in Africa, found it especially difficult to develop a correct appraisal of the situation. They therefore relied on the information supplied by NGOs: New Zealand and its allies were ‘deeply affected by independent information from nongovernmental organizations about the ethnic character of the killings’ (Walling 2013, p. 132). Czech Ambassador Karel Kovanda recalls how ‘he had learned more about what was really happening in Rwanda from human rights groups in New York than from sitting in the secret Security Council meetings’ (Melvern 2002). Kovanda started to develop an understanding of the events in Rwanda after reading a New York Times article by a member of an NGO Africa Watch. The ambassador was not familiar with Africa Watch, but it belonged to the Helsinki Watch network, which Kovanda knew well for their work on Czechoslovak dissidents during the Communist era.1 Kovanda recalls that he had ‘an a priori reason to trust the Africa Watch folks’; in addition, the article ‘had an internal logic’, which helped him realize the nature of the domestic and foreign interests involved in the Rwandan conflict (Kovanda 2010, p. 201). Therefore, both the reputation and expertise of Africa Watch has played a role in attracting Czech diplomat’s attention.

Interested to learn more, Kovanda contacted Africa Watch and befriended Alison Des Forges, a leading specialist on Rwanda, who ‘became the source of accurate, dependable information about the situation in the country’ (Kovanda 2010, p. 201). On 18 April, he invited her to brief the ten elected Council members. It was ‘a very unusual meeting during which “small countries”, nonpermanent UNSC members, had an opportunity to learn from reliable and extremely well informed, albeit informal, sources about the causes, origins, and course of the Rwanda catastrophe’ (Kovanda 2010, p. 202). As for Alison Des Forges, the meeting was also ‘a quite extraordinary opportunity for her as an NGO representative to communicate directly with diplomats working on the UNSC’ (Kovanda 2010, p. 202). In 1994, the relationship between civil society and Security Council diplomats was still at a nascent stage.

On 19 April, two days before the Council’s vote to reduce UNAMIR to a token presence, the executive director of Human Rights Watch wrote to New Zealand Ambassador Colin Keating that ‘the Rwanda military authorities are engaged in a systematic campaign to eliminate the Tutsi’ (Melvern 2000, p. 169). Keating also sought information from NGOs on his own initiative. Since the Secretariat did not communicate clearly what was going on in Rwanda, Keating started having personal meetings, sometimes two or three times a day, with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and MSF. He then conveyed the information to other diplomats on the Council (Keating 2004, p. 506). On 26 April, the UK Ambassador reported back to the Foreign Office the information that Keating had received from MSF about the murder of doctors and patients in one of the hospitals run by the relief organization, which was described by MSF Director-General as ‘the worst atrocity seen by MSF since it was established’ (UK Mission to the UN 1994, p. 2). The information provided to Keating by NGOs was reaching other Security Council diplomats and subsequently foreign ministries in their respective countries.

On 28 April, a draft statement by the President of the Security Council, a non-binding but politically consequential document, was circulated by the Czech delegation, referring to the events in Rwanda as genocide. The draft also contained the following phrase: ‘In addition to information available from the Secretary-General, the Security Council has considered information available from well-respected NGOs’ (as cited in Kovanda 2010, p. 218). It was ‘unheard of’ but reflected the reality in which the ‘most valuable and most trustworthy information originated with Africa Watch, Amnesty International, the ICRC, and MSF, whereas the UN Secretariat did not furnish much of value’ (Kovanda 2010, p. 205).

Following long negotiations, the term ‘genocide’ was dropped but the ethnic character of the killings was recognized.

Besides, ‘not a word remained about the work of and information from NGOs that the Czech delegation had stressed in our original draft’ because ‘China and Oman were particularly loath to allow for a precedent of the Security Council’s reacting to information from NGOs’ (Kovanda 2010, p. 207). While many small and middle powers were eager to acknowledge the role of civil society in shaping their perceptions of the conflict (which was also an implicit criticism of the Secretariat’s inability or unwillingness to provide accurate information), some major powers like China were anxious to preserve the state-centric nature of Council politics. In general, as Cora Weiss of the Hague Appeal for Peace observes, ‘the willingness to listen certainly depends on the member state and the flexibility of thinking of the ambassador’: while some ‘are really grateful to get information’ from NGOs, there are also ‘countries that feel treated by civil society’ (as cited in Niemetz 2015, p. 47).

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