The Age
UN denies culpability for genocide


Wednesday 12 January 2000

The United Nations is set to exercise its broad diplomatic immunity to avoid moves by two Australian lawyers to sue it for alleged complicity in the Rwandan genocide which left 800,000 dead.

The UN denied on Monday that it had any legal culpability in the 1994 killings, despite being criticised from an independent inquiry for not taking greater action to head off the murderous wave.

Mr Michael Hourigan, a US-based former South Australian prosecutor, and leading human rights lawyer, Mr Geoffrey Robertson, are preparing to sue the UN on behalf of two Rwandan women who lost family members in the killings.

The women claim that UN peacekeepers sent to protect their families either handed them over to the rampaging Hutu militants or ran away when the fighting broke out.

A UN spokesman said on Monday that the organisation did not believe it had anything to answer for in the courts, and warned that any legal action could have a damaging effect on the future of all peacekeeping operations.

"I can't say that we will definitely use our immunity, because there is no case at the moment and everything is hypothetical," Mr Fred Eckhard, the official spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, said.

"But I can say that if we allowed our peacekeepers to be brought to courts and tried over matters like this, that would be the end of peacekeeping."

A UN official later said the organisation would exercise its immunity if the matter got to a court.

Mr Eckhard said the UN soldiers in Rwanda were never given a Security Council mandate to become involved in the fighting. "We were not there to stop a war - we were there to facilitate a peace process," he said.

Mr Hourigan said a formal letter of demand to the UN is being prepared.

"We will first ask for a settlement or reparations package for the families. If the UN refuses to settle then we will ask for a private arbitration before a negotiated international tribunal. This type of settlement process is known to the UN and has precedent in international law," he said.

"But one must remember that no one has ever brought this type of complaint against the UN before. So we are really making international law."

However, there is precedent for the principle, he said. "The world demanded that the Nazis and their allies compensated the victims of the Holocaust. The world has just demanded that the Iraqis compensate the victims of its military aggression in Kuwait. Why shouldn't the United Nations be required to make good its damage in Rwanda?"

Mr Hourigan was an investigator with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and uncovered diplomatic cables sent to the UN headquarters in New York warning of the genocide.

The US Secretary of State, Dr Madeleine Albright, who was the US ambassador to the UN at the time of the 1994 genocide, refused to appear before the independent inquiry, which was chaired by the former Swedish Prime Minister, Ingvar Carlsson. Dr Albright is reported to have been in favor of cutting UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda to 270, which is what the Security Council ultimately ordered.

The cables, from the UN commander in Rwanda, the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, went to Mr Annan in his then-capacity as head of peacekeeping.

An independent inquiry into the genocide, commissioned by Mr Annan and headed by former Mr Carlsson, issued a report last month criticising Mr Annan and other senior UN officials for failing to sound the alarm earlier.

It also condemned the lack of political will on the UN Security Council to act against the massacre. The Security Council met while the killings were continuing and voted to reduce, rather than increase its military presence in response.

The Security Council decisions on Rwanda had the strong support of the US Government, which did not want to become involved in another peacekeeping tragedy so soon after suffering heavy losses in Somalia.

Mr Annan emphasised the Rwandan peacekeepers' lack of power in his response last month to Mr Carlsson's report.

He said that of all his aims as Secretary-General, "there is none to which I feel more deeply committed than that of enabling the United Nations never again to fail in protecting a civilian population from genocide or mass slaughter".

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]