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When politicians should step aside

By Sasha Uzunov - posted Thursday, 19 March 2009

After the enormous destruction of the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires in the state of Victoria, the experts told us never again. Australian politicians, whether fighting fires or wars, seem to have trouble heeding the bitter lessons of history but there is some hope.

Could the ferocious 2009 Victorian fires have been minimised? It is hard to say now, as we wait for the findings of the impending Victorian Royal Commission of Inquiry.

Still, 2009 marks the 15th anniversary of two “political bushfires” that still burn fiercely in the minds of many Australians.


The two “political bushfires” from 1994 are the Rwanda United Nations Peacekeeping mission fiasco and the killing of two Australian backpackers in Cambodia, Melbourne social worker David Wilson and Brisbane model Kellie-Anne Wilkinson.

The man at the centre of these 1994 “fires” was the then Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, who had a burning ambition to become the next UN Secretary-General. Since retiring from Australian politics, Evans has exacerbated this condition as a near-invisible international firefighter heading up the International Crisis Centre in Brussels. Ironically, Evans is again playing international firefighter for another ALP Federal government. Last year Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed him co-chair of the International Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Commission.

Then ALP Prime Minister Paul Keating and Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, in order to score international brownie points and bolster Evans’ tilt at the UN top job, deployed a contingent of Australian army medics, who were protected by a company of infantry soldiers from Townsville-based battalion 2/4 RAR, to African hell hole Rwanda as part of United Nations Peacekeeping mission that was flawed from the very start.

Despite the obvious limitations of the UN Rwanda mandate, Australian peacekeepers were able to do the best job possible in treating the many wounded and suffering during a genocide that saw rival ethnic Hutu extremists kill nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

Years later, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was also responsible for the Rwanda debacle when he ran the UN peacekeeping portfolio, said:

“We must never forget our collective failure to protect at least 800,000 defenceless men, women and children who perished in Rwanda.


“Neither the UN Secretariat, nor the Security Council, nor member states in general, nor the international media, paid enough attention to the gathering signs of disaster. Still less did we take timely action.”

In his book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Canadian ex-General Roméo Dallaire, who was commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, claims that Annan was overly passive in his response to the incipient genocide. General Dallaire explicitly asserts that Annan held back UN troops from intervening to settle the conflict, and from providing more logistical and material support.

In particular, Dallaire claims that Annan failed to provide any responses to his repeated faxes asking him for access to a weapons depository, something that could have helped defend the endangered Tutsis. Dallaire concedes, however, that Annan was a man whom he found extremely "committed" to the founding principles of the United Nations.

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About the Author

Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.

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