23 years ago, genocide was unleashed in Rwanda. Almost a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in about 100 days.
Consider not just the scale of the violence but the intimate means by which some 10,000 people a day lost their lives. Men, women, and children were killed at close proximity – often butchered with machetes, knives, scythes, clubs, picks, and sharpened sticks.
Their killers were not only members of the Rwandan army and the government-backed Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi, the Hutu militias. They were also the victims’ own neighbours, those they had sat next to at school, played soccer with, worked alongside. Many were tortured and raped before they were killed.
Instinctively, we recoil from such horror. Yet, in 2003, the United Nations General Assembly designated April 7 the “International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda”.
Why should we stop to reflect on such inhumanity and brutality, an episode that evokes shame, despair, and revulsion, now decades behind us, when current global problems abound and hope already often seems in short supply?
Looking back as a means of trying to gain perspective on today’s complex crises might seem naive. One might even argue that the Rwandan genocide was an aberration, a temporary slip into collective insanity, a result of some unique confluence of circumstances, still unfathomable.
Yet, the events of 1994 do warrant reflection today. They serve to remind us of two things: the culpability that can accompany simply looking the other way; and the risks, including to ourselves, of building walls (both real and metaphorical) between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Acknowledging responsibility for inaction
The Rwandan genocide is not only a litany of unimaginable acts and intimate violence. It’s simultaneously a story of unimaginable omissions and the distanced “allowing” of such violence. Inhumanity was not only revealed in the horrifyingly callous manner in which the machetes were wielded but in carefully calculated denial, in silence and inaction, in dithering and stalled deliberation.
Blame shouldn’t be apportioned only to those who carried out or choreographed the killings. Other actors are also to blame, including institutional agents.
The multiple failures of the UN to prevent or mitigate the genocide in Rwanda are acknowledged in its 1999 report which followed an independent inquiry. Inaction when the UN had a capacity to act, and could have averted great harm, is inexcusable.
Of course, the member states of the UN were also blameworthy for their own discrete failures. The US, for example, stubbornly skirted around the one label that was rapidly revealed to be appropriate: genocide, a label that highlights an intention to eliminate, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.
Its utterance would have indicated recognition by the US – a signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention – of its obligation to act. So, the word was avoided, and the US’s obligation to act with it. Yet, it was clear that the world was witnessing genocide.
The killings were meticulously planned and orchestrated by those in power. They were executed with brutal efficiency. Weapons had been stockpiled; lists of targets had been compiled and were distributed to local groups. The genocidaires (those involved in the genocide) were infamously urged on by regime-sponsored radio broadcasts that, at first, ushered in the genocide with hate propaganda against the Tutsis and then identified who and where the Tutsis were, and provided instructions on how to kill them. By the time the killing came to a halt in July, three out of every four ethnic Tutsis were dead.
One step forward
Within Rwanda, a slow and painful process of reconciliation followed. The international community offered expressions of remorse – and even apology. US President Bill Clinton, speaking in Rwanda in 1998, acknowledged that
[t]he international community… must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy.
On the tenth anniversary of the genocide, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented that
[i]f the international community had acted promptly and with determination, it could have stopped most of the killing.
He led the call to define a clear set of prospective responsibilities so that the UN would never again stand idly by as blatant and preventable mass atrocities were carried out.
At the 2005 World Summit, all member states signed up to the groundbreaking, if imperfect, “responsibility to protect” vulnerable populations from mass atrocity. Post-Rwanda the world seemed united in its rallying cry of “never again”.
A world of diluted international obligations?
Yet, in an increasingly inward-looking world of Brexit and Donald Trump, fear and myopia threaten to obscure even the formally acknowledged international obligations that the experience of Rwanda supposedly bolstered.
International obligations – to refugees, to those threatened with mass atrocity crimes – seem weakened. The relevance of intergovernmental organisations and supranational bodies has been questioned amid populist proclamations of “my country first”. Cosmopolitan sentiments appear diminished when confronted with often xenophobic distinctions between fellow citizens and “foreigners”.
One of the many things that the 1994 genocide can teach us is how easily fear can be fostered, how effectively divisions can be constructed and manipulated, how quickly ties that we take for granted can unravel – and how our individual and collective security is sacrificed as a result.
If we don’t learn this lesson, I worry that we are poised to take two steps back.
As shameful as the strategic avoidance of the word “genocide” was in 1994, there was some solace in the weight that it was understood to carry. Denial that the violence in Rwanda constituted genocide was, in fact, recognition of the strength of the principle that genuine cases must be acted on.
Today, I am wary of a time when there might be no hesitation to name genocide simply because the expectation to respond has become so thoroughly eroded, and our international responsibilities (as corollaries to human rights) so meaningless, that nothing hangs on inaction.
How to avoid that possible future is worthy of serious reflection.
Author: Toni Erskine
Toni Erskine is a Professor of international Politics in UNSW Sydney