U.N. official in speech at Sonoma State U. blasts international response to Rwanda

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Calling Rwanda's genocide "another Holocaust," a prominent U.N. official criticized the international community for taking a weak stance against the tyranny that led to the slaughter of a half-million Tutsis.

Fifty years after the Holocaust, the international community remains reluctant to take decisive action against genocide, said Rene van Rooyen, head of the U.S. office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"With 50 years of study, analysis and conclusions, 50 years of books, movies and cries of `never again' — 50 years later, under the watchful eye of CNN…genocide happened again. The world let it happen again," he said in a recent lecture at Sonoma State University.

The lecture was part of the university's 12th annual Holocaust lecture series, sponsored by the Alliance for the Study of the Holocaust and the Sonoma State University Holocaust Studies Center.

There are clear differences between the mass exterminations of Jews in Europe and the Tutsis in Rwanda, and comparing the Holocaust to other events "risks robbing it of its unique significance," van Rooyen pointed out. However, at least one comparison is inescapable.

"During both tragedies, the international community looked the other way and ignored the cries for help," he said, adding that it's understandable that the international community currently feels overwhelmed by an "explosion of humanitarian situations" across the globe. With scant resources already spread thin, the United Nations is unable to respond to every local conflict.

But at a crucial point early in the Rwanda crisis, when the international community could have made moves to prevent the situation from deteriorating, van Rooyen said there was a clear unwillingness to mobilize resources.

And at another critical moment, he said, the United Nations refused to term the slaughter "genocide" because calling it by name would have necessitated a more active role. Members nations are obligated under U.N. conventions to prevent and punish genocide as a crime against humanity.

The international community balked, he said, because "in such times, politics becomes more important than people."

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which staged a massive refugee relief effort in response to Rwanda's genocide, was created in 1951 as a temporary agency to assist Holocaust survivors and other displaced persons in Europe.

Now one of the world's principal humanitarian agencies, the agency's charge has expanded to providing international assistance to all the world's refugees, estimated at some 50 million. Based in Geneva, it remains the only U.N. office with temporary status because, in theory, it's supposed to work itself out of existence.

But with the United Nations wavering in its commitment to its own conventions, van Rooyen said that goal may not be easily realized.

In addition, van Rooyen said the failure to confront Rwanda's genocide calls into question the world's ability to apply lessons from the Holocaust.

"It's very easy to say `never again,' but then when [genocide] occurred in a different shape and a different form, we didn't recognize it."