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UN Recognizes Exceptional Bravery of Senegalese Peacekeeper

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon presents the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal for Exceptional Courage to Yacin Mar Diop, widow of Senegalese Captain Mbaye Diagne. (Eskinder Debebe/United Nations)

The United Nations has recognized the outstanding bravery of a peacekeeper who was killed while protecting hundreds of civilians during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The honor was awarded Thursday to the widow and two children of Senegalese Captain Mbaye Diagne.

In 1994, Diagne was a young army officer deployed with the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda. While Hutus massacred at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during a 100-day spree, Diagne risked his life to save hundreds of children, women and men.

An undated reproduction photo shows Mbaye Diagne, a young Senegalese captain who saved the lives of people during the Rwanda genocide.
An undated reproduction photo shows Mbaye Diagne, a young Senegalese captain who saved the lives of people during the Rwanda genocide.

“He did not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a medal ceremony in the General Assembly Hall under a large projected image of a smiling Diagne. “He did not ignore his conscience or walk away in fear. He acted from his heart. He was exceptionally courageous.”

Diagne hid the civilians a few at a time in his U.N. vehicle. Ban said he made “dozens” of trips across checkpoints and roadblocks, using his charm and steely nerve to get the people to safety.

“If he had been caught, he and his passengers very likely would have been killed on the spot,” Ban said.

The Rwandan genocide continues to haunt the United Nations as one of its greatest failures. Messages from the mission to headquarters in New York warning of the potential for mass atrocities were not acted upon. When the killings began, peacekeepers provided refuge for thousands at their bases, but were otherwise reduced largely to the role of bystanders.

“While the world failed to act to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, Captain Diagne was fearless in saving as many lives as he could,” the secretary-general said.

Diagne was killed by a mortar round in May 1994 on his way to mission headquarters, just weeks before his assignment was due to end.

Two years ago, the U.N. Security Council created the Captain Mbaye Diagne Medal in his honor. U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous told the gathering it is to be awarded to military and civilian personnel who demonstrate exceptional courage, using Diagne’s bravery as the benchmark.

Ladsous said the U.N. considered 10 cases but realized no one had achieved what the Senegalese captain had, so the inaugural medal was awarded to Diagne's family in his honor.

Peacekeeping under scrutiny

The United Nations has more than 100,000 peacekeepers — or “blue helmets” as they are often known because of their distinctive headgear — deployed in 16 missions around the world. Recently, however, they have come under heightened scrutiny because of scores of sexual abuse and exploitation allegations leveled against those serving, particularly in Africa.

The United Nations has a zero-tolerance policy for such misconduct, but it has not stopped the wave of allegations, many from minors in the Central African Republic. The mission chief in the C.A.R. was fired last August when the first wave of allegations came to light, but that has not stopped the rapes.

A former U.S. Homeland Security official, Jane Holl Lute, has been hired to coordinate U.N. efforts to improve the organization’s response.

Peacekeepers come from 123 countries, some with poor vetting and human rights practices. The U.N. Security Council has expressed its support to the secretary-general in a resolution allowing him to repatriate entire police or military units when there is credible evidence of widespread or systemic sexual exploitation or abuse.

Dangerous work

May 29 is International Peacekeeping Day, but it was commemorated Thursday at U.N. headquarters.

The secretary-general laid a wreath in the building’s lobby to commemorate all fallen peacekeepers, but especially the 129 who died in the line of duty in 2015.

This year, 37 peacekeepers have died, including five who were ambushed Wednesday in northern Mali.