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Contributing to the Demise of Absolutes
Can an organization established to promote and uphold principles ever justify inaction when confronted with a crime of a nature that challenges its very essence and that is committed by one of its own? What of the argument that such an offence is only the act of an individual, and thus cannot be made to reflect the ethics or workings of the organization as a whole? And that consequently, seeking to bring to light such a violation will not serve the greater good?
The case of the United Nations’ inability to investigate the allegations of one of its own having participated in the Rwandan genocide presents such a profound dilemma. But the UN is not unique, the Catholic Church continues to grapple with the issue of the pedophilia of some of its priests, and the US army has struggled to confront the abuse of prisoners in Iraq.
Callixte Mbarushimana, a former UN staff member (1992-1995 Rwanda, 1996-1998 Angola, and later Kosovo 2000-2001) is accused of having participated in the murder of thirty-three people, among whom UN colleagues. There is strong evidence that for two years prior to the event while with UNDP (United Nations Development Program) he was even in command of the training of a militia involved in the genocide (the Interahamwe). While his involvement in the 1994 genocide was brought to the attention of UN senior leadership in 1996, it was only in April 2001 that action started to be taken. The outcome was deplorable. In 2004, in part as a result of the UN’s unwillingness or inability to initiate an investigation, Callixte Mbarushimana was awarded thirteen months salary for the violation of his rights in not being reinstated in the UN following the termination of his contract in 2001.
It was only in 2010 that Callixte Mbarushimana was arrested and sent to The Hague. But not for his involvement in the 1994 genocide, rather as a result of his role in leading a genocidal militia (FDLR, Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda), which under his leadership has committed horrendous abuses in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It could be said that justice has been served. Or has it?
One of the most disturbing aspects of the attempt to get the UN to address the case of Callixte Mbarushimana has been the reaction of its leadership and staff. While expressing shock, without exception all felt that the system would take no action. Ultimately they were proven right. The UN has yet to attempt to draw lessons from its own inaction. No effort has been made to honor the memory, and seek justice for the families, of those UN colleagues allegedly killed by Callixte Mbarushimana.
It has been impossible to get the leadership of the organization to understand that the particular act committed by one of its own is by its very nature unique. It can be argued that the act is a transgression of what once was an absolute, the crime of genocide. There seems to be no understanding within the organization that doing nothing is far greater and far more insidious than the risks and costs related to seeking to uphold the highest standards of justice. But is this argument actually correct? How damaging is such inaction to an institution that stands for international norms and values?
In its simplest form, the cost to the UN is the opportunity missed to demonstrate a commitment to upholding not only values but its obligation to protect the integrity of the Convention on Genocide. More sinister is the implied collusion that comes from those in the system who can do so, refusing to act on information that suggests or even proves the crime that was committed. Of course, the risk is that this passivity slides towards more active culpability as information is suppressed or guilty individuals protected. In the case of Callixte Mbarushimana, questions remain as to how he was able to continue to be employed by the UN well after the allegations against him were known.
On a more general note, the inaction risks fueling among staff a loss of confidence in the leadership of the organization. This in turn may further translate into a diminishing respect for rules, regulations, and more importantly, an understanding of individual obligations. The issue of hypocrisy comes also into play when observing the organization’s attempt to get governments and other entities to respect international law and human rights. But these are consequences linked to any injustice left unanswered and only of real gravity if the case of Callixte Mbarushimana hides a deeper trend. Does it?
The philosophical question that the case of Callixte Mbarushimana raises is whether today there continue to be absolute values. It could be argued that principles are an essential component of a social contract, and that certain laws or ideals set higher standards. In many ways, the UN was established to be the protector of the social contract that emerged from the multiple horrors of two World Wars.
From the work of the founders of the UN emerged absolutes, key among them the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Genocide. For almost half a century such absolutes were never questioned; they set out limits that it was unthinkable to transgress. But over the course of the last two decades, the red lines were crossed and the relevant instruments invoked with little success in containing the horrors. Absolute values are no more. The UN, as a political body, has not only failed to uphold the higher moral standards entrusted to it, but has had the violation of one of these perpetrated by its own staff. The question that the UN’s inaction poses is whether the body is still a protector of this social contract, or has become complicit in its demise.
The UN says that the case of Callixte Mbarushimana is a one-off. If this is so, then the organization should apologize to the families of the victims and dare to go public about what went wrong in dealing with the case. But can we be sure that it is a one-off? Other cases in the past may have gone unnoticed, possibly even in the present. True, some have been highlighted and addressed (key among them the massacres of Srebrenica and the rapes in the DRC). But would the leadership of the organization have been more attuned to address these crimes if at the time it had reacted more adequately or forcefully in the case of Callixte Mbarushimana? What is clear is that Callixte Mbarushimana would in all probability not have been in a position to lead the FDLR in continuing to inflict unimaginable suffering in Central Africa had the UN investigated the allegations against him when it clearly knew of them in 1996.
But what of honoring the memory of the UN officials allegedly killed by Callixte Mbarushimana, and the right for their families to see justice being served? If one believes in the divine, there is probably a sense that ultimately justice will prevail and that individuals will be held accountable for their acts. But for those lacking such faith, such certitudes are far less evident.
Charles Petrie is an independent political consultant who lives in Brussels, Belgium. He formerly had senior policy and operational responsibilities with the UN system in Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, New York, the Middle East, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Burundi. He resigned from his last position as the UN Secretary-General’s representative in Burundi, in part to pursue the issue of institutional impunity.
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