Why We Must Never Forget the Rwanda Genocide

Pambazuka 150
April 5 2004

Why We Must Never Forget the Rwanda Genocide

Fahamu (Oxford)

by Gerald Caplan

Pambuzuka News 150: A Weekly Electronic Newsletter For Social Justice
In Africa

This editorial was produced as part of a special issue of Pambazuka
News on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda Genocide. The full issue
is also available on allAfrica.com Pambazuka News 150.

Those of us who are preoccupied, even obsessed, with commemorating in
2004 the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide are often taken
aback when we’re asked what all the fuss is about. After all, just
today I received from the Holocaust Centre of Toronto an invitation
to join in commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust in
Hungary. Not the entire Holocaust, just the terrible Hungarian
chapter. Yet memorializing the genocide in Rwanda is never taken for
granted in the same way.

Isn’t it already ancient history? Aren’t there all kinds of human
catastrophes that no one much bothers with? Didn’t it take place in
faraway Africa, in an obscure country few people could find on a map.
Wasn’t it just another case of Africans killing Africans? What does
it have to do with us, anyway?

These questions deserve answers, not least because some are entirely
legitimate. Above all, it is fundamentally true that there would have
been no genocide had some Rwandans not decided for their own selfish
reasons to exterminate many other Rwandans. But once this truth is
acknowledged, a powerful case for remembering Rwanda remains, and
needs to be made.

The responsibility to remember:

First, Rwanda was not just another ugly event in human history.
Virtually all students of the subject agree that what happened over
100 days from April to July 1994 constituted one of the purest
manifestations of genocide in our time, meeting all the criteria set
down in the 1948 Geneva Convention on the Prevention and Punishment
of Genocide. Genocide experts debate whether Cambodia or Srebrenica
or Burundi were “authentic” genocides; like the Holocaust and (except
for the Turkish government and its apologists) the Armenian genocide
of 1915, no one disagrees about Rwanda. And since genocide is
universally seen as the crime of crimes, an attack not just on the
actual victims but on all humanity, by definition it needs to be
remembered and memorialized.

Second, it wasn’t just another case of Africans killing Africans, or,
as some clueless reporters enjoyed writing, of Hutu killing Tutsi and
Tutsi killing Hutu (or Hutsi and Tutu, for all they knew or cared).
The Rwandan genocide was a deliberate conspiratorial operation
planned, organized and executed by a small, sophisticated, highly
organized group of greedy Hutu extremists who believed their
self-interest would be enhanced if every one of Rwanda’s 1 million
Tutsi were annihilated. They came frighteningly close to total

Third, the west has played a central role in Rwanda over the past
century. Just as no person is an island and there’s no such thing as
a self-made man, so every nation is the synthesis of internal and
external influences. This is particularly true of nations that have
been colonies, where imperial forces have played a defining role. To
its everlasting misfortune, Rwanda is the quintessential example of
this reality. The central dynamic of Rwandan history for the past 80
years, the characteristic that allowed the genocide to be carried
out, was the bitter division between Hutu and Tutsi. Yet this
division was largely an artifact created by the Roman Catholic Church
and the Belgian colonizers.

Instead of trying to unite all the people they found in Rwanda 100
years ago, Catholic missionaries invented an entire phony pedigree
that irreconcilably divided Rwandans into superior Tutsi and inferior
Hutu. When the Belgians were given control of the country following
World War 1, this contrived hierarchy served their interests well,
and they proceeded to institutionalize what amounted to a racist
ideology. At independence in the early 1960s, this pyramid was turned
on its head, and for the next 40 years Rwanda was run as a racist
Hutu dictatorship. None of this would have happened without the
Church and the Belgians.

The Culprits:

Last, but hardly least, the 1994 genocide could have been prevented
in whole or in part by some of the same external forces that shaped
the country’s tragic destiny. But without exception, every outside
agency with the capacity to intervene failed to do so. My own list of
culprits, in order of responsibility, is as follows:

-the government of France

-the Roman Catholic Church

-the government of the United States

-the government of Belgium

-the government of Britain

-the UN Secretariat.

I name the French and the Church first since they both had the
influence to deter the genocide plotters from launching the genocide
in the first place. Rwanda was the most Christianized country in
Africa and the Roman Catholics were far and away the largest
Christian denomination. Catholicism was virtually the official state
religion. Catholic officials had enormous influence at both the elite
and the grassroots level, which they consistently failed to use to
protest against the government’s overtly racist policies and
practices. Indeed, the Church gave the government moral authority.
Once the genocide began, Catholic leaders in the main refused to
condemn the government, never used the word genocide, and many
individual priests and nuns actually aided the genocidaires.

Rwanda was a French-speaking country, and France replaced Belgium as
the key foreign presence. When the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a
rebel group of English-speaking Tutsi refugees from Uganda, invaded
Rwanda in 1990, the French military flew in to save the day for the
Hutu government. For the following several years, right to the very
moment the genocide began, French officials had enormous influence
with both the Rwandan government and army. They failed completely to
use that leverage to insist that the government curtail its racist
policies and propaganda, stop the increasing massacres, end the
widespread human rights abuses, and disband the death squads and
death lists.

Two months after the genocide began, a French intervention force
created a safe haven in the south-west of the country through which
they allowed genocidaires leaders and killers, fleeing from the
advancing RPF, to escape across the border into Zaire. From Zaire
they began an insurgency back into Rwanda with the purpose of
“finishing the job”. Eventually this led to the Rwandans invading
Zaire/Congo to suppress the insurgency, which in turn soon led to the
vicious wars in the Congo and the subsequent appalling cost in human
lives throughout eastern Congo.

Once the genocide was launched after April 6, 1994, the American
government, steadfastly backed by the British government, were
primarily responsible for the failure of the UN Security Council to
reinforce its puny mission to Rwanda. Under no circumstances were
these governments prepared to budge. The Commander of the UN force –
UNAMIR – repeatedly pleaded for reinforcements, and was repeatedly
turned down.

Two weeks into the genocide, the Security Council voted to reduce
UNAMIR from 2500 to 270 men – an act almost impossible to believe 10
years later. Six weeks into the genocide, as credible reports of
hundreds of thousands of deaths became commonplace and the reality of
a full-blown genocide became undeniable, the Security Council voted
finally to send some 4500 troops to Rwanda. Several contingents of
African troops were put on standby, but deliberate stalling tactics
by the USA and Britain meant that by the end of the genocide, when
the Tutsi-led rebels were sworn in as the new government on July 19,
not a single reinforcement of soldiers or material ever reached
Rwanda. This was one of the darkest moments in the history of the
United Nations.

As for Belgium, notwithstanding the racist attitudes and colonial
behaviour of its soldiers, their contingent was the backbone of
UNAMIR. When 10 Belgian soldiers were murdered by Rwandan government
troops on the very first morning of the genocide, the Brussels
government immediately decided to withdraw the remainder of its
forces and to lobby the Security Council to suspend the entire
Rwandan mission. Its motive was simple: They did not want to be seen
as the sole party undermining UNAMIR. At the Security Council, of
course, it found eager allies.

The role of the UN Secretariat is somewhat ambiguous. To a large
extent, its failure to support the pleas of its own UNAMIR Force
Commander reflected its lack of capacity to cope with yet another
crisis combined with its understanding that the US and Britain would
not alter their intransigent positions. Still, there were many
occasions when the Secretariat failed to convey to the full Security
Council the dire situation in Rwanda, and many opportunities when it
failed to speak up publicly in the hope of influencing world opinion.

A multitude of betrayals:

It is not far-fetched to say that the world has betrayed Rwanda
countless times since its first confrontation with Europeans in the
mid-1890s. This previous account has presented several of these
betrayals before and during the genocide: by the Catholic Church, by
the Belgian colonial power, by the French neo-colonial power, by the
international community.

To exacerbate further this shameful record, we need to look at the
past decade. First, the concept that the world owed serious
reparations to a devastated Rwanda for its failure to prevent the
genocide has been a total non-starter.

Second, there has been precious little accountability by the
international community for its failure to prevent. The French
government and the Roman Catholic Church have to this moment refused
to acknowledge the slightest responsibility for their roles or to
apologize for any of their gross errors of commission or omission.
President Bill Clinton and Secretary-General Koki Annan have both
apologized for their failure to offer protection, but have both
falsely blamed insufficient information; in fact what was lacking was
not knowledge – the situation was universally understood – but
political will and sufficient national interest. No one has ever quit
their jobs in protest against their government’s or their
organisation’s failure to intervene to save close to one million
innocent civilian lives.

Those we must not forget:

Finally, the very existence of the genocide has largely disappeared
from the public and media’s consciousness. This is the latest
betrayal. Marginalized during the genocide, Rwanda’s calamity is now
largely forgotten except for Rwandans themselves and small clusters
of non-Rwandans who have had some connection with the country or
specialize in genocide prevention. That’s why I founded the
Remembering Rwanda movement in July of 2001. I had four targets for
remembering: the innocent victims; the survivors, many of whom live
in deplorable conditions with few resources to tend to their physical
or psychological needs; the perpetrators, most of whom remain free
and unrepentant scattered around Africa, Europe and parts of North
America; and the so-called “bystanders”, the unholy sextet named
earlier. Rather than being passive witnesses, as the word “bystander”
implies, all were active in their failure to intervene to stop the
massacres, and all remain unaccountable to this day. It is time the
Rwandan genocide is treated with the concern and attention it so
grievously earned.

* Gerald Caplan is the author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide
(2000), the report of the International Panel of Eminent
Personalities appointed by the Organization of African Unity to
investigate the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the founder of
“Remembering Rwanda: The Rwanda Genocide 10th Anniversary Memorial

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