Remembering the Rwandan genocide

No one can say that we did not know – we knew, but did not act.

Paul Kagame 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Paul Kagame 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 day.
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 extermination.
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 begins.
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 order.
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.
One has 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 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 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 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 UNSC resolutions to refer Syrian criminality to the International Criminal Court.
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.
The fifth lesson is the danger of assaults on the most vulnerable in society.
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 is playing out 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 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.
May the 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.