Even if you’re the president of the country in question, even if some of your frustration is justified, and even if you’re not feeling particularly thrilled with the UN at the moment, this should still not be how you commemorate the 15th anniversary of a horrendous genocide. “Lambast[ing] the ‘cowardice’ of the UN,” as the BBC juicily titles its account of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s speech today, is neither productive nor justifiable, and it does nothing to honor the memories of over 800,000 Rwandans who perished in the brutal 100-day span that began 15 years ago today.

When the scant contingent of UN peacekeepers all but departed Rwanda during the genocide, over the protestations of General Romeo Dallaire, it was indeed a shameful exhibit of cowardice. The cowardice, however, was not that of those UN blue helmets, ten of whose comrades were slaughtered at the genocide’s outset and who were pulled out of the country by forces beyond their control. Nor is it the cowardice of “the UN” cum blanket entity that deserves reprehension. The community of nations writ large bears no small share of responsibility for allowing the genocide to develop, accelerate, and climax, and each country in that mix — including post-conflict Rwanda itself — needs to deal with that painful legacy. But scapegoating a few UN peacekeepers, whose mandate was beyond their control, and who were the only token response that powerful countries deigned to allow, sidesteps the real questions of justice, culpability, and reconciliation in Rwanda.

The United Nations Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO) learned a great deal from the tragic experience of Rwanda. Its failure there, coupled with others in the 90’s, spurred the development of the seminal “Brahimi doctrine,” a 2000 report outlining the appropriate circumstances for UN peacekeeping engagement and the overriding imperative of garnering adequate support for missions. While DPKO — and, more importantly, Security Council members and troop contributors — could probably stand to refresh themselves with the dictates of the Brahimi report these days, the UN and the international community have unquestionably learned lessons from Rwanda.

It couldn’t be that President Kagame’s pot shot at the UN is in retaliation for this critique of Rwanda’s human rights practices, now, could it? That wouldn’t make much sense; not only are DPKO and the UN Human Rights Committee completely different entities, but such a petty gesture certainly would not befit such a somber anniversary. Plus, you’d think France would be more deserving of Kagame’s ire.

(image of Rwandan President Kagame, speaking in front of the UN in 2007)

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