Are we still bystanders?

This April we are commemorating the 19th anniversary of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In Rwanda and around the world families, civil society, NGOs, regional and international organizations are commemorating the victims. To summarize the Rwanda genocide in one sentence I will quote governmental official and writer Samantha Power: “In the course of a hundred days in 1994 the Hutu government of Rwanda and its extremist allies very nearly succeeded in exterminating the country’s Tutsi minority.” (“Bystanders to Genocide,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 2001)

To me the Rwanda genocide has a special resonance. In terms of my academic background, this tragedy is what made me go into this field of study, even though I had long been interested in the Holocaust. On a more personal level, my interest in Rwanda led me to spent several months as a volunteer in Kigali. I spent three months working with a local organizations dedicated to the families of victims. The moment I stepped in Rwanda, I fell in love with the country and its people. I met victims and their families, visited commemoration and memorial sites, attended Gacaca court sessions (a local system of community and transitional justice) and memorial ceremonies, and saw the impact such tragedies can have on a country and its people. After years of spent reading books and testimonies, my experience as a volunteer made everything real. As part of my work, I also am lucky enough to regularly meet Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire. As you probably know, he served as Force Commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force for Rwanda in 1993-1994. All these personal experiences only reinforced my dedication to the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide.

Every year, the commemorations remind me of how far we have come. In 2005, 192 countries passed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a political commitment to act in the face of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. In 2007, the UN established an office for the prevention of genocide, responsible for alerting relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide, and to advocate for appropriate action. Finally, despite its imperfections, the International Criminal Court (ICC) is making the international legal system stronger by trying to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.

But the commemorations also remind me of how much remains to be done in terms of prevention and re-action to mass atrocity crimes. This year United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon declared that, “preventing genocide is a shared responsibility. States must uphold their obligations under international law to prevent abuses and protect their populations. […] Only by meeting these challenges can we match the resolve of the survivors and truly honour the memory of those who died in Rwanda 19 years ago.” But these are just words. Yes, genocide prevention may be understood as a “shared responsibility” by many, but little is done when we are faced with looming or actual mass atrocities. Today, the slogan “Never Again” remains an empty phrase. In the past few years, we have seen mass atrocity crimes being committed in many regions of the world without anyone intervening in a timely manner. I want to make clear that by “intervening” I do not necessarily mean military intervention, which should be used as a last resort and with the right intention. Here, I am speaking about prevention first.

As you may you know the Rwandan genocide could have been prevented. Despite inevitable imperfections of intelligence and confusion over precise nature and extent of the situation, there were warning signs: propaganda, rapid militarization, extremism, and early killings. Lt-Gen Roméo Dallaire warned the UN and once the killings began, he asked for reinforcement. But there was never any institutional support. On the contrary, after the death of ten Belgian peacekeepers, the US demanded a full UN withdrawal and most of Dallaire troops left by April 25, leaving him with about 500 peacekeepers. We failed to stop the massacres even after the reality of genocide had become irrefutable. Rwanda was a marginal concern.

I understand that many people find the “responsibility to protect” doctrine imperfect, but the signatories nonetheless made a political commitment. We need to build a political will and a capacity to prevent crimes from escalating into large-scale atrocities and conflicts. Mass atrocity crimes and genocide do not emerge out of nowhere, there are signs. To me, the Rwandan genocide is symbolic of opportunities missed, the steps we could have taken early on, and the lessons that must be learned. Have we learned them? Perhaps. We have indeed made significant progress. But I believe most of the time we still refuse or fail to apply these lessons. Each case is different, I agree, but the “international community” still fails to intervene in a timely manner. There is too much tiptoeing and thus we find ourselves in a deadlock while mass atrocities are being committed. To me, prevention remains the most important element. The timely actions we can take before it is too late.

To finish on a lighter note. Watch this wonderful video about Rwanda. Although the road is still long, this how far the country has come.


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