Two historic anniversaries, Rwanda and Nuremberg, remind us of the horrors of genocide

What makes the Rwandan genocide so unspeakable was 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 we did not act.

April 7, 2016 21:54
George Sakheim

George Sakheim at left, in front of judges at Nuremberg Trial, 1946. The photo was signed by British and American judges. (photo credit: COURTESY GEORGE SAKHEIM)


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This year marks two historic anniversaries: the 80th anniversary of the coming into effect of the Nuremberg Race Laws that served as prologue and precursor for the Holocaust; and the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials which served as prologue and precursor for development of contemporary international criminal and humanitarian law.

Distinguished judges such as Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella of Canada, Lord John Dyson of the UK Supreme Court, Chief Justice Sam Rugege of the Rwandan Supreme Court and Dorit Beinisch, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, will hold a panel discussion on “Justice After Nuremberg.” They will join such eminent jurists as Luis Moreno Ocampo, former special prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and former French justice minister Robert Badinter, who will gather at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University for a daylong legal symposium, on the theme: “The Double Entendre of Nuremberg: The Nuremberg of Hate and the Nuremberg of Justice.”

Two of the main themes of the symposium will be “The Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights: Universal Lessons for the Preventing and Combating of Mass Atrocity in Our Time,” and, “Justice After Nuremberg: What Have We Learned?” This week we also remember, and commemorate, the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide – an unspeakable atrocity where one million Rwandans were murdered in a three-month genocidal onslaught that began on April 7, 1994.

Indeed, what makes the Rwandan genocide so unspeakable was 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 we did not act.

Eight years ago, the Canadian Parliament – by a unanimous motion – designated April 7 as a National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide. Indeed, as it happens, April has been designated both in the United States and Canada 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, what is it that we can 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 – and the Nuremberg Race Laws foretold – these acts of genocide were preceded by – and anchored in – an orchestrated dehumanization and demonization of the minority Tutsi population in Rwanda. This included invoking epidemiological metaphors of Tutsis as “cockroaches” as prologue to – and justification for – their extermination, not unlike the reference to Jews as “insects” or “devils” and the like.

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” – where it all begins.

On this 80th anniversary year of the Nuremberg Race Laws and the 68th anniversary year of the Genocide Convention, the international community must bear in mind – 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 order.

• The second lesson, dramatized by the Rwandan Genocide – and again not unlike the Holocaust – is the danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction. For the Rwandan Genocide occurred not only because of the state-sanctioned culture of hate, but because of crimes of indifferences and conspiracies of silence.

As we remember Rwanda, we must recommit ourselves to prevent and to protect the victims of mass atrocities in our time.

Indeed, while urgent protective action continues to be needed now in Syria, civilian appeals for help these past five years fell on the deaf ears of the international community as bystander. We must break this cycle of indifference and inaction if we are truly to learn the requisite lesson.

• The third lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity that repeatedly emboldens those intent on committing mass atrocities and genocide. Indeed, if the last 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 – as the Nuremberg Laws remind us – so there must be no base or sanctuary for the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity, as the Nuremberg Trials remind us.

One need look no further than the case of Ahmed Haroun, the Sudanese minister of the interior 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 from 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 Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir continues to evade justice and accountability for his role in the Darfurian Genocide.

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 UN Security Council resolutions to refer Syrian criminality to the International Criminal Court.

And that is why as minister of justice I initiated the first-ever prosecution under the War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act of Rwandan war criminal Désiré Munyaneza, who was subsequently convicted of such crimes by Canadian courts.

• 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, while rape in Syria emerged not just as a consequence of atrocity, but as an instrument for pursuing it.

• The fifth lesson is the danger of assaults on the most vulnerable in society. Simply put, the 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 also found expression in Syria, with its massive incidence of rape, the targeting and torturing of children, and the dramatic refugee plight.

• 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 Holocaust – and the Rwandan Genocide – is itself a repudiation of such denial, which becomes more prevalent with the passage of time.

May the Rwandan Genocide, and the Holocaust, 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 shudder to mention – genocide. That is what this legal symposium on the “Double Entendre of Nuremberg: The Nuremberg of Hate and the Nuremberg of Judgment” is all about.

Irwin Cotler is the former minister of justice and 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, and is co-chairman of the Nuremberg Legal Symposium organized by March of the Living international.

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