IRWIN COTLER ON RWANDA ANNIVERSARY: GENOCIDE STARTS WITH INCITEMENT TO HATE
comment/archive/2009/04/07/irwin-cotler-on-rwanda- anniversary-genocide-starts-with-incitement-to-hat e.aspx
April 7 2009
Today marks the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, where close
to one million Rwandans – mostly ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates –
were murdered in a three-month genocidal onslaught that began on
April 7, 1994.
The Canadian Parliament, in a unanimous motion, has designated
April 7th as a national day of reflection on the prevention of
genocide. 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. Eliot has called "the cruelest month."
And so, this day – this month – invites us not only to remember the
horrors of genocide, but to reflect and act upon their lessons. For
the while the world vowed "Never Again" after the unspeakable horrors
of the Holocaust – and once again after the atrocities of the Rwandan
genocide – "Never Again" has happened again and again, symbolized most
recently by our entering upon the sixth anniversary of the genocide
by attrition in Darfur. In Darfur – where some 400,000 people have
died, 3 million have been displaced, and 4 million have been left
in desperate need of humanitarian assistance – all the warning signs
were present–yet we failed to act to prevent it.
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 are these lessons, and as Annan asks, what can we do?
The first and foremost lesson of the Holocaust and the genocides
that followed, from Srebrenica to Rwanda, is that they occurred
not only because of the machinery of death, but also because of the
state-sanctioned incitement to hate. It is this teaching of contempt,
this demonizing of the other–this is where it all begins. 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.
In the aftermath of the 60th anniversary of the Genocide Convention,
the international community must bear in mind – as the jurisprudence
from the Rwandan genocide, including the Mugesera case decided by
the Canadian Supreme Court, has reminded us again and again – that
incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself. Taking action to
prevent it, as the Genocide Convention compels us, is not a policy
option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest order.
The second lesson is the danger of indifference and the consequences of
inaction. For genocide has occurred not only because of the machinery
of death and a state-sanctioned culture of hate, but also because
crimes of indifference and conspiracies of silence. What makes the
Rwandan genocide so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocide,
but that this genocide was preventable. Nobody can say we did not
know; we did, but we did not act. Just as no one can say that we do
not know what is happening in Darfur.
The third lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity. If the last
century was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few
of the perpetrators were brought to justice. Just as there cannot be
a sanctuary for hate or a refuge for bigotry, neither can there be a
haven for war criminals and for perpetrators of the worst of crimes
The International Criminal Court’s indictment of Sudanese President
Omar al-Bashir last month – the first time ever that an ICC arrest
warrant has been issued against a sitting head of state – was a
historic judgment in the struggle against impunity. Never before
had the court so boldly expressed the principle that "nobody stands
above the law." Yet this judgment remains to be acted upon. President
al-Bashir’s defiance of the arrest warrant – and his deplorable
banishment of humanitarian aid groups providing desperately-needed
water, health care, sanitation, and the like to millions of people,
followed by travels where he was welcomed as a head of state in foreign
countries – only nurtures the culture of impunity that the ICC sought
to curtail. The ultimate value of al-Bashir’s arrest warrant will not
be measured in the legal precedents it creates, but the international
action it compels.
The fourth lesson is the danger of assaults on the most vulnerable in
society. The Holocaust and genocides that followed occurred not only
because of the vulnerability of the powerless, but also because of
the powerlessness of the vulnerable. In these tragedies, 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. It is our
responsibility to empower the powerless while giving voice to the
voiceless, wherever they may be.
The fifth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial–an assault on
memory and truth, a criminal conspiracy to whitewash the worst crimes
in history. In the most obscene form, as in the case of Holocaust
denial, it will actually accuse the victim of falsifying this
"hoax." Remembrance of the Rwandan genocide is itself a repudiation of
such denial–which is becoming 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 April 7 – and the genocides of this month – be an occasion not
only to remember, but to learn the lessons of the crime whose name
we should even shudder to mention.
Irwin Cotler, former minister of justice and attorney general of
Canada, is special counsel for human rights and international justice
to the Liberal Party and M.P. for Mount Royal. He is a law professor
(on leave) at McGill University and has written extensively on