A Closer Look at Where Rwanda's Lethal Weapons Came From

By its own admission, the Rwanda government bankrupted its economy to pay for those weapons.
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Last week marked a significant step forward in the campaign to control the global distribution of lethal weapons. Eighteen countries, including five of the world's leading arms exporters, ratified the landmark Arms Trade Treaty one year after it was adopted by the UN General Assembly.

The decision brings us one step closer to the total of 50 signatures required to bring the Treaty into force. It is the world's first Treaty designed to regulate an industry worth up to $85 billion per year.

A discussion about the regulation of lethal weapons takes us to Rwanda, where commemorations are underway to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Genocide against the Tutsi.

More than one million people were killed between April and July of 1994 and hundreds of thousands of survivors suffer to this day. There is no better example of the devastating effects of the ready availability of weapons globally.

Genocide is always organised, usually by the state, often using militias to provide deniability of state responsibility. And while it is true that most of the killings in Rwanda in 1994 were carried out with machetes and clubs, those government-sponsored militias that were intent on carrying out large-scale massacres were reliant on imported automatic rifles and hand grenades.

The buildup of arms in Rwanda started in 1990. Genocide researcher and author Linda Melvern documented in her 2004 book Conspiracy to Murder that "in the three years from October 1990, Rwanda, one of the poorest countries in the world, became the third largest importer of weapons in Africa, spending an estimated $US 112 million."

By its own admission, the Rwanda government bankrupted its economy to pay for those weapons. And for ordinary Rwandan citizens, it had reached a point where cheap weapons were so readily available that they could purchase hand grenades alongside bananas in markets across the country.

So where did these weapons come from?

In 1992, a $6 million contract was signed between Egypt and Rwanda, with payment guaranteed by a French bank. It included 60-mm and 82-mm mortars, 16,000 mortar shells, 122-mm D-30 howitzers, 3,000 artillery shells, rocket-propelled grenades, plastic explosives, antipersonnel land mines, and more than three million rounds of small arms ammunition.

In May 1993, a French arms dealer agreed to sell $12 million worth of weapons to Rwanda. On Jan. 21, 1994, in violation of the terms of the recent peace accords, a French DC-8 cargo plane landed covertly in Kigali loaded with weapons, including 90 boxes of 60mm mortars.

South Africa supplied automatic rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenade launchers and ammunition.

On Jan. 10, 1994, a militia commander and former member of the President's security guard, code-named "Jean-Pierre", gave UN peacekeepers details of the planned genocide. The informant told UN Colonel Luc Marchal that each of the militia units he controlled had the ability to kill 1,000 people every 20 minutes, and that he was overseeing the provision of weapons and training for militia recruits.

General Romeo Dallaire, Commander of the UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, faxed General Maurice Baril in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) at UN headquarters in New York and advised him of the weapons distribution and extermination plan that "Jean-Pierre" provided.

On Jan. 12, 1994, Dallaire got a fax signed by Kofi Annan, Head of DPKO, advising Dallaire not to seize the weapons that were stockpiled by the militia because it was not in the mandate of UN peacekeepers to do so.

When he arrived in Kigali on Feb. 21, 1994, Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes was shocked to witness the open distribution of stockpiled weapons to civilians.

UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt then gave a formal report about peacekeeping in Rwanda to the UN Security Council, on March 30, 1994, in which he recounted the distribution of weapons, training of militia, assassinations and street violence.

Despite this recognition by the UN of the devastating effect that imported weapons was having, absolutely nothing was done to prevent or stop the slaughter of one million Tutsis and those who protected them.

Twenty years ago in Rwanda, the government got the message from the international community, again and again, that it could get away with genocide facilitated by foreign arms. It was not until May 17, 1994, more than five weeks into the genocide, that the United Nations Security Council imposed an arms embargo on the genocidal regime.

With the global Arms Trade Treaty still not ratified, I cannot help but wonder how many other governments are getting that very same message from the international community today.

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