Global Policy Forum

UN Investigates 'Loss' of Rwanda Black Box


By George Wright

March 12, 2004

The UN has launched an inquiry into how a flight data recorder thought to contain vital evidence on the plane crash that sparked the Rwandan genocide was filed away and left untouched for more than 10 years.

The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, announced the move in response to claims in a French newspaper that the UN had obstructed the investigation into the 1994 downing of the plane over Rwanda by not opening the "black box". The crash - in which the then-president of Rwanda, Juvenal Habyarimana, and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprian Ntayamirawere were killed - set off a chain of violent ethnic clashes in Rwanda, culminating in the slaughter of some 800,000 Tutsis by Hutu soldiers and militias.

The recorder finally "turned up" again yesterday, according to a UN statement, in a locked filing cabinet in the organisation's air safety unit in New York. It had been lying there untouched since being filed away by aviation experts who apparently believed its "pristine condition" ruled out the possibility that it came from the downed Falcon 50 aircraft, said UN spokesman Fred Eckhard. Because of that judgment, he added, the air safety experts, after unsuccessfully trying to identify its source, put it in the file cabinet and did not report it up the chain of command.

He said it was rediscovered after the UN traced the paper trail of a black box that was sent by diplomatic pouch from the UN assistance mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in 1994 via Nairobi, Kenya, to the UN Headquarters in New York. Mr Eckhard stressed that none of the senior peacekeeping officials at the time had any knowledge of it and that the first time they knew of its existence was yesterday. "They then reported this to the secretary general's office," he said.

"On the face of it, there's no reason that we would think that that judgment made by those experts 10 years ago was a faulty judgment, but to make sure we're going to send it out for analysis." Mr Annan has instructed the UN office of internal oversight services (OIOS), the organisation's in-house watchdog, to look into "exactly what happened 10 years ago".

He said he was surprised to find out that a black box existed, and "much less in this building". He told reporters the situation "sounds like a real foul-up, a first-class foul-up," but that he did not think there had been any attempt at a cover up. "I was incredulous when I was told it existed, because it was first raised with me when I was in Canada, following the Le Monde article, and I said 'I don't see why we would not cooperate with an investigation," he said yesterday.

An independent report on the UN role in the genocide, commissioned by Mr Annan, concluded in 1999 that the organisation and its member states lacked the political will and resources to prevent or stop the genocide. The US, in particular, blunted any efforts to get the security council more deeply involved in the Rwanda crisis in 1994. Mr Annan and then-US president Bill Clinton both apologised to Rwandans in the late 1990s for the failure of will that allowed the genocide to continue unchecked.

According to Le Monde, the six-year investigation led by France's leading anti-terrorism judge concludes that the chief suspect in the fatal attack on the plane is former Tutsi rebel leader turned president, Paul Kagame. The magistrate has concluded that Mr Kagame gave direct orders to fire two rockets at the plane on April 6 1994, the paper says. Mr Kagame denied yesterday that he or his former rebel force, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), were responsible.

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