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13 September 2019

A dress that tells a story

Rwanda – 1994-1995


By statute, the Council of Europe is an exclusively European organisation, its absolute priority being to act for and with its member states. But the values it enshrines have, throughout its history, led it to pay close attention to situations involving massive human rights violations outside our continent. What is more, it possesses means of action which apply well beyond the limits of Europe (for example, the Venice Commission or the Pompidou Group) and even one whose mandate is to act as a “window on the world” (the North-South Centre, based in Lisbon). Eliana Carvalho recalls what the centre did before and after the Rwandan genocide.

Up in the attic, there’s an old wooden chest I brought back from Africa. In it I keep old clothes so that maybe one day my future grandchildren will discover this treasure trove recording my personal and family history, much like a diary. Sometimes I delve into the trunk myself and as I pull out this or that dress, I am submerged by a flood of memories…

March 1994

“Rwanda is on the brink of a genocide” – this was the stark warning sounded at the first meeting of the Lisbon Forum.
I had been working at the North-South Centre in Lisbon for a year when Hans-Peter Furrer, Director of Political Affairs, tasked us with setting up a forum to act as a whistle-blower on human rights issues. At its first meeting, a field worker from a French non-governmental organisation warned us of the plans for genocide fomenting in Rwanda, a country that had been mired in the ethnic conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis for decades. He told of the insidious spread of racist ideology, the fear of the other that had been implanted at all levels of society, and the call to exterminate every last “inyenzi”, or cockroach, as the Tutsis were called. The forum relayed these dire portents to the media and its partners, but the international community remained oblivious to the warning signals that had been building for months, refusing to acknowledge the situation in this country in East Africa’s Great Lakes region.

April 1994

After the Rwandan President was killed in an attack, an extremist provisional Hutu regime took power and launched a genocide that, in just a few weeks, would take the lives of more than 800 000 people and force thousands to flee their homes.
My colleagues and I at the North-South Centre looked on in horror, and our sense of helplessness turned to anger at the lack of any international political reaction. Our whistle-blowers had lost contact with their local partners, the only news emerging from the country between April and the end of June came via international press agencies, and we only re-established communications with our contacts in July. We requested a meeting with Daniel Tarschys, the recently elected Secretary General of the Council of Europe. His decision was categorical: the Organisation had a duty to raise international awareness of the tragedy unfolding in Rwanda and the region. Right away, the Netherlands started making arrangements for a high-level conference.

September 1994

The North-South Centre and its partners organised the International Conference on Rwanda in its Regional Context, held in The Hague under the auspices of the Secretaries General of the Council of Europe and the Organisation of African Unity. It attracted a large gathering of local, regional and international stakeholders who were eager to support peace and stability in the country, which although ravaged by war and torn apart by genocide, was already starting to rebuild. The Hague Appeal adopted at the close of the conference was the starting point for a number of initiatives, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and a United Nations fund for the region.

February 1995

Following its report on Rwanda and the prevention of humanitarian crises, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) appointed one of its members to visit the Great Lakes region. Thanks to my involvement in the Lisbon Forum and The Hague Conference, I was invited to accompany the parliamentarian on the mission organised by the North-South Centre. When we met at Charles de Gaulle, he was clearly surprised that such a young person had been charged with such a delicate assignment! He seemed relieved when I told him about my African roots and the many assignments I had already been sent on there. I was equally reassured by his considerable political experience and knowledge of Swahili.


We landed in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, a country gripped by civil war since 1993, where we were to attend the United Nations conference on assistance to refugees, returnees and displaced persons in the Great Lakes region. 

If you wish to continue your reading, you may buy the book "Europe: a human enterprise".

Eliana is a Portuguese national, who spent her entire childhood and adolescence in the Republic of Congo. The human rights abuses that she witnessed there influenced her choice of future career. In 1991, she joined the Council of Europe and worked in the Parliamentary Assembly (Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights) before moving to the Council of Europe’s North-South Centre in Lisbon where she sought to build dialogue between Europe and Africa on human rights issues and was involved in the launch of the Lisbon Forum and the North-South Prize. She returned to the headquarters in Strasbourg in 2011 and has been working in the Directorate of Human Resources ever since.