This week we remember and commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Rwandan
genocide – an unspeakable atrocity where one million Rwandans were murdered in a
threemonth genocidal onslaught that began April 7, 1994. Indeed, what makes the
Rwandan genocide so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocide itself,
but the fact that it was preventable.
No one can say that we did not know
– we knew, but did not act.
Five years ago, the Canadian parliament – by
a unanimous motion – designated April 7 as a National Day of Reflection on the
Prevention of Genocide.
As it happens, this year’s National Holocaust
Remembrance Day and the Rwandan Genocide Remembrance have fallen on the same
Indeed, April has been designated in the United States as Genocide
Prevention Month – as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Srebrenica and
Rwanda – in an eerie convergence – all began in what T.S. Elliot once called
“the cruelest month.”
And so, this week – this month – invites us not
only to remember the horrors of genocide, but as the Canadian parliamentary
motion called for, to reflect and act upon its lessons. For while the world
vowed “Never Again” after the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust, “Never
Again” has happened again and again, symbolized by the international community
as bystander in Rwanda.
As Kofi Annan lamented on the 10th anniversary of
the Rwandan Genocide, “Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be
repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?” The
answer is that the international community will only prevent the killing fields
of the future by heeding the lessons from past tragedies. What, then, are these
lessons, and, as Annan asks, what can we do? The first and foremost lesson of
the Rwandan genocide – not unlike the Holocaust – is that these genocides
occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but also because of
state-sanctioned incitement to hate.
Indeed, as the case law of the
Rwandan genocide demonstrates, the acts of genocide were preceded by – and
anchored in – an orchestrated dehumanization and demonization of the minority
Tutsi population, invoking also epidemiological metaphors of Tutsis as
“cockroaches” as prologue to – and justification for – their
As the Canadian Supreme Court recognized – and as echoed
by international criminal tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda – the
Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words. It is this
teaching of contempt – this demonizing of the “other” – this is where it all
In this 65th anniversary year of the Genocide Convention, the
international community must bear in mind – again, as the jurisprudence from the
Rwandan genocide, including the Mugasera case decided by the Supreme Court of
Canada reminds us – that incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself.
Taking action to prevent it, as the Genocide Convention mandates us to do, is
not a policy option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest
The second lesson, dramatized by the Rwandan genocide, is the
danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction. For the Rwandan
genocide occurred not only because of the statesanctioned culture of hate, but
because of crimes of indifference and conspiracies of silence.
only to read the witness testimony on Rwanda in Philip Gourevitch’s book,
titled, Tomorrow we are going to be killed together with all our families; or
Gerry Caplan’s searing indictment in his book on The Preventable Genocide; or
Leave None to Tell the Story: The Genocide in Rwanda, published by Human Rights
Watch, to understand not only the horror of this genocide – conveyed so movingly
by survivors like Esther Mujawago-Keiner – but that it was the complicity of the
international community that made this genocide possible. As the UN Security
Council dithered and delayed, Rwandans died.
As we remember Rwanda, we
recommit ourselves to prevent and to protect the victims of mass atrocities in
our time. Indeed, while urgent protective action is needed now in Syria,
civilian appeals for help fall on the deaf ears of the international community
as bystander. We must break this cycle if we are truly to learn the requisite
The third lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity that
repeatedly emboldens those intent on committing mass atrocities and
Indeed, if the past century – symbolized by the Holocaust and
the genocide in Rwanda – was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of
impunity. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice.
Just as there
must be no sanctuary for hate, no refuge for bigotry, there must be no base or
sanctuary for the enemies of humankind.
One need look no further than the
case of Ahmed Haroun, the Sudanese Interior Minister indicted for his direct
role in the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in Darfur, who
was then cynically rewarded for this indictment by being appointed minister of
state for humanitarian affairs and made responsible for hearing the human rights
complaints of the very victims he had assaulted.
Indeed, it is this same
Ahmed Haroun who – as governor of South Kordofan – presided over the killing
fields of the Nubian people; while Felicien Kabuga, a Rwandan genocidaire
fugitive, continues to evade justice and accountability for his role in the 1994
Similarly, the world community must also bring to justice the
Syrian leadership for its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in
Syria, aided and abetted by its Russian and Chinese enablers who have vetoed
UNSC resolutions to refer Syrian criminality to the International Criminal
The fourth lesson is the persistent danger of violence against
women during mass atrocities, in particular, rape as a weapon of war. Indeed,
evidence from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda dramatizes the
systematic use of sexual assault during the genocide as a means of continued
degradation, humiliation and torture. Indeed, rape emerges not just as a
consequence of atrocity, but as an instrument for pursuing it.
lesson is the danger of assaults on the most vulnerable in society.
Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide occurred not only because of the
vulnerability of the powerless, but also because of the powerlessness of the
vulnerable. In mass atrocities, it is often the most vulnerable of the
vulnerable – the brutalized children, women victimized by massive sexual
violence, fleeing refugees – who are the first targets of oppression and
violence. Regrettably, this pattern is playing out in Syria, with its massive
incidence of rape, the targeting and torturing of children, and the dramatic
The sixth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial – the
denial of the Rwandan genocide – an assault on memory and truth, not unlike the
case of Holocaust denial. In its most obscene form, as in both the case of
Holocaust denial and the denial of the Rwandan genocide, it will actually accuse
the victim of fabrication and falsification of the crimes. Remembrance of the
Rwandan genocide is itself a repudiation of such denial – which becomes more
prevalent with the passage of time.
Finally, we should recall the heroic
rescuers – those who remind us of the range of human possibility; those who
stood up to confront evil, prevailed and transformed history.
Rwandan genocide – and the genocides of this cruelest month – be an occasion not
only for remembrance, but to learn the lessons of the crime whose name we should
even shudder to mention.
Irwin Cotler is the former justice minister
attorney-general of Canada and a professor of law (emeritus) at McGill
University. He introduced the unanimous motion for Canada’s National Day of
Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide.