The Rwandan genocide 20 years later – Living with the irreparable

April 7 marked to official launch of a hundred days of events commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. I spent two days at a conference titled “Growing up with the irreparable”, which features panels of academics and survivors. The stories of survivors are certainly what affected me the most.

Those who survived say that it is impossible to put words on their experience. However, I found the way they described the horrors of the genocide extremely powerful. Each of them has their own way of describing it and I want to transcribe them here in order to emphasize our responsibility to prevent future genocide.


Testimony 1: Atanasie

We don’t know how to explain the pain we live with and carry. There are no words to describe the genocide against the Batutsis. I carry the seal. The word “irreparable” is like a rope that has been broken into several pieces and cannot be repaired. There is no service for that. The shock exists, persists and will always persist. At every shock, I fall to the ground. The month of April destroys me. It would be better if there were no month of April.

God has given me the chance to survive so I must try to live like others. I try to live like others but it is difficult to feel like the Atanasie I was before the genocide. There are two people in me: the Atanasie before the genocide, who is strong, and the Atanasie after the genocide, who has been ripped apart. I try to live with both. I must reconcile the past, the present and the future.


Testimony 2 (13 years old in 1994)

I’m not a survivor because I lived abroad at the time but in a way I am a survivor because my mother’s entire family has been killed. For me the irreparable is the people I have lost…I should not even use the word “lost” because they have been exterminated.

I do not want to accept that there is something broken in me. I’m part of the second generation and I want to believe in reparation. I feel divided between what my parents had to endure since the 1960s and the new generation today. I carry the wounds but I want to make the transition between my parents’ live story and the new Rwanda.

In the diaspora, we are divided. I grew up with Tutsis and the division is still there. In the diaspora, we have a tendency to put the Good on one side and the Bad on the other side. I want to go further and have reconciliation. I think reconciliation can happen in my generation but you cannot force my mother to accept reconciliation, especially since a lot of the killers have no regrets. Reconciliation is personal. I feel that I can do it.


Testimony 3 (28 years old in 1994)

For me, being a survivor is emptiness, absence. I have no images, no picture. This is the irreparable. All I have left of my father is loincloth. When April comes, I wash it, iron it and put it away.

Anxiety is my companion. I wake up in the middle of the night to make sure that my child is still breathing. This is the irreparable

We are violent towards ourselves in order to repress our sentiments, in order not to expose ourselves, in order not to bare ourselves and cry. We don’t want to get these feelings out. This is the irreparable.

I could not act. This is the irreparable

The irreparable is living with the smell of rotting human bodies for the past 20 years.

The irreparable is having to live with the culpability of having survived when others have not. I feel guilty that the last words I said to my father were not more tender. I wish I could have found something nicer to say.

Sometimes I hear “How come you were not killed in 1994.” As if would be more convenient if I had. Hearing this from Tutsis make me want to go on. I have a responsibility towards my family and towards the survivors.



Testimony 4 (8 years old in 1994)

April is the season of sadness, the season of memory, the season of courage.

The irreparable are the smells, the scenes, the words that come back unannounced, for no reason.

I remember the sound of the plane crashing. We thought it was a grenade and went into hiding.

I remember the first person I saw being killed, the first person I saw being raped. I remember seeing by mother among dead bodies searching for my father’s body.

I remember the words of those who committed these acts. They seemed relieved to live in a world where Tutsis would no longer exist. Even those who did not kill were relieved. This is the essence of genocide.

The irreparable is not being able to say the words “dad.” The sad truth is: when we are survivors we wish we could be like everybody else.

I wish we had been given as space to speak clearly about what we went through. When we speak about the genocide, it’s like speaking about a complex subject. But for us, it is qui simple to explain. We just want to be given a space to tell about our truth.

Your challenge now is to take up a pen and to write your story as you know it and feel it. To repair the irreparable we must change our way to think and speak. Nobody can take our truth from us unless we tell them.

Testimony 5

The irreparable is definitive. It’s not like a fracture one can weld. I have a scar where the machete struck. This wound accompanies me. When I see it, I’m immediately back where I was on that day. I lived in Bisero where only 800 out of 60 000 Tutsis survived. My father survived but today he can barely speak. The day I saw my father again after being separated, I did not recognize him and I promised myself that I would live. We tried to reconstruct ourselves. I carried my father’s misery, his pain, his despair. He used to be a dignified, upright man but I became like his mother. I carried him on my back or held him by the hand, and tried to be strong in front of him.

Living became our vengeance. Studying became my vengeance. I move to Canada and earned several degrees. I wish you the best and most beautiful vengeance. They failed. Live continues. We are the proof. This is the challenge: to raise you head and stand upright.

Testimony 6

Those who lived in the diaspora at the time also carry the irreparable. My Rwandan friends in Rwanda and where I lived, kept counting the dead while my entire family here was safe. I felt guilty that I cannot find the words to comfort them. It was like a reproach “Your parents are doing well”

What I want to transmit to my children is that we did not respond to hate by hate. Instead we continued to live and are proud of who we are.

Testimony 8: Eugène (26 years old at the time)

The irreparable is having to knead my pain every morning with tears that are struggling to fall. It is also the smell of rotting carcasses that impregnate my clothes.

The genocide for me are these moments of complete absurdity where one ceases to be human. One just becomes the product of a slaughter.

I debated for a long time whether I had the right to live because all my friend had been exterminated, all my family had been exterminated. I didn’t think I had the right until the day I realized that by refusing to live I agreed with the murderers. I agreed with the murdered who assassinated my family. I had to stand up again. We must accept that life continues. That it does not stop because one génocidaire decided that it had to.

“Forgiveness” is not part of my vocabulary. I will forgive if someone asks me for forgiveness but I cannot forgive in the void.

The members of United Nations have to change to way they protect humanity, if this is indeed their mission. If they intervene, if they act or if they simply give up and we will say “We let evil triumph –“

Testimony 9: Arlette

The plane crashed in the night and the next day we had become snakes, insects to eliminate. When you wake up in the morning and you’re looking for the next person to kill, you are no longer human – you’re an animal. Usually when somebody dies, you are sad and you cry. But death had become so trivial that we would see a person die and it had become something normal. We could not cry because we did not have the right to. We though “I’ll be next”

My biggest fear is how to tell that story to my son. How do I transmit it so as to keep the memory alive but without transmitting the hate?

I think there’s no reconciliation because we do not have to reconcile. There are two communities who live in separate corners but there is mistrust, great, great mistrust.



Génocide Rwandais – Vivre avec l’irréparable

Le 7 avril marquait le début de 100 jours de commémoration du 20ème anniversaire du génocide rwandais contre les Tutsis. J’ai passé deux jours à une conférence sur « Vivre avec l’irréparable » qui comprenait des présentations données par des chercheurs et des survivants ou familles de survivants. C’est ces témoignages qui m’ont le plus touché.

Les rescapés expriment souvent l’impossibilité de mettre des mots sur le génocide, sur leur expérience. Mais j’ai trouvé la manière dont ils décrivaient l’horreur très percutante. Chacun avait sa manière d’en parler et je veux retranscrire leurs paroles ici afin de souligner notre responsabilité à faire plus d’efforts afin de prévenir de futur génocide.


Témoignage 1 – Atanasie

Nous ne savons pas comment décrire la douleur qui nous habite. Il n’ya pas de mot pour décrire le génocide contre les Batutsis. Je porte le cachet. Le mot irréparable c’est une ligne continue qui a été coupé en morceau par morceau de telle manière qu’on ne peut pas reconstruire la corde. Il n’y a pas de service pour réparer ça. Le choc existe, persiste et persistera pour toujours. Au moindre choc je suis à terre. Le mois d’avril me détruit. Si il n’y avait pas le mois d’avril, ce serait mieux.

J’essaie de vivre comme les autres. C’est difficile de me sentir comme l’Atanasie d’avant. En moi il y a deux personnes, l’Atanasie d’avant le génocide qui est forte et l’Atanasie d’après qui est déchirée. J’essaie de vivre avec les deux personnes en moi. Dieu m’a donné la chance de survivre alors je dois essayer de vivre comme les autres

Il faut concilier, le présent, le future et le passé


Témoignage 2 (13 ans à l’époque)

Je ne suis pas une rescapée, je vivais en Suisse mais d’une côté je le suis car toute la famille de ma mère est décédée. Moi je n’ai jamais vécu là-bas. Pour moi l’irréparable c’est tous ces gens que j’ai perdu. Je ne devrais même pas utilisé le mot perdre car ils se sont fait exterminer.

J’ai vite appris qu’il y avait Hutu et Tutsi, mauvais et gentils. C’est comme ça que je l’ai vécu en Suisse. Je ne veux pas accepter que j’ai quelque de briser en moi qui ne peux pas être réparer. Je fais partie de la deuxième génération et je veux croire en une réparation. J’aimerais que mes enfants aient quelque chose de plus. On est partagé entre ce que nos parents ont vécu depuis les années 1960 et la nouvelle génération. Je porte les blessures mais j’aimerai pouvoir faire la transition entre son vécu et ce nouveau Rwanda.

Dans la diaspora, on est très divisés. J’ai grandi avec des Tutsis et la division est toujours là. Dans la diaspora on a tendance de mettre les mauvais d’un côté et les bons de l’autre. Je veux aller plus loin faire la réconciliation. Je pense que la réconciliation peut se faire plus à notre génération qu’à la votre. On ne peut pas forcer ma mère à la réconciliation. Surtout que beaucoup ne le regrette pas. C’est personnel. En ce qui me concerne je peux le faire.


Témoignage 3 (28 ans à l’époque)

 Pour moi être rescapé c’est le vide, c’est l’absence. Je n’ai pas d’image, pas de photos. C’est irréparable. Tout ce qui me reste c’est un pagne de mon père. Quand avril approche, je le lave, je le repasse et je le range. C’est ça l’irréparable.

L’angoisse est mon compagnon. Je réveille au milieu de la nuit pour voir si mon enfant respire encore. C’est ça l’irréparable

L’irréparable c’est se faire violence chaque jour pour réprimer ce sentiment afin de ne pas s’exposer, de ne pas se mettre à nu, de ne pas pleurer. On ne veut pas sortir ces sentiments. Ça c’est l’irréparable.

Je ne pouvais pas agir. Ça c’est l’irréparable

L’irréparable c’est aussi vivre avec la culpabilité. Coupable de vivre alors que les autres ne vivent plus. Coupable de savoir que la dernière parole qu’on a eu avec son père n’ont pas été les plus tendres. J’aurai voulu trouver quelque chose de plus tendre à lui dire.

C’est aussi entendre dire « comment ça se fait que tu n’as pas été tué en 1994 » ? Comme si, si j’avais été tué, cela aurait arrangé quelqu’un. Entendre cela de la part de Tutsi, ça me donne la force d’avancer. Que vaut la vie après le génocide si elle n’est pas vécue dans l’amitié. J’ai des responsabilités envers ma famille, les survivants


Témoignage 4 (8 ans à l’époque)

Avril c’est la saison de la tristesse et de la mémoire, une saison de courage.

L’irréparable c’est les odeurs, les scènes, les mots qui reviennent sans préavis sans raisons particulières.

Je me rappelle des bruits de l’avion qui est tombé. Mes parents nous en réveillé, on a cru que c’était un grenade.

Je me rappelle la première fois que le première personne que j’ai vu une personne abattue, une personne violée. La fois ou j’ai vu ma mère au milieu de corps à la recherche du corps de mon père. Je me souviens des mots de ceux qui commettaient ces actes. Ils semblaient en paix dans un monde dans lequel les Tutsis n’existaient pas. Même ceux qui ne participait pas au génocide. C’est ça l’essence du génocide.

L’irréparable c’est ne pas avoir la chance de dire le mot « papa ». Quand on est rescapé on aimerait être comme tout le monde et ça c’est la triste vérité.

On aurait du créer un espace dans lequel on aurait pu parler clairement de ce qu’on a vécu. Quand on parle du génocide en Kinyarwanda c’est comme parler de dossier complexe. Hors pour nous c’est simple à expliquer. On veut simplement énoncer ma vérité comme on l’a vécu. Notre défi c’est de prendre un stylo et d’écrire l’histoire comme on la connait au fin fond de votre cœur. Pour réparez l’irréparable il faut changer notre façon de penser et de parler. Personne ne peut nous prendre notre vérité à moins qu’on ne leur dise.


Témoignage 5

L’irréparable c’est définitif. C’est pas comme une fracture que l’on peut souder. J’ai une cicatrice là où la machette m’a blessé. Cette blessure m’accompagne. Quand je la regarde, je replonge là où j’étais ce jour là. Je vivais à Bisero où 800 parmi 60 000 tutsis ont survécu. Mon père a survécu mais aujourd’hui il ne sait pas parler plus de deux minutes.

Quand j’ai revu mon père après avoir été séparé de lui, je ne l’ai pas reconnu.  Quand j’ai vu mon père je me suis promis que j’allais vivre alors qu’avant je ne voulais pas.

On a essayé de se reconstruire. Je portais mon père avec sa misère, sa douleur, son désespoir. Il avait été un homme digne, droit. Maintenant j’étais devenu comme sa mère. Je le portais parfois sur mon dos, je le prenais par la main. Devant lui je me montrais forte. Vivre était notre façon de se venger. Je gardais la tête haute. Mes études c’est ma vengeance. Je vous souhaite la vengeance la plus belle. La vie continue, nous en sommes la preuve. C’est ça le défi : de lever la tête, se tenir debout.


Témoignage 6

Ceux qui n’étaient pas au Rwanda en 1994 portent aussi l’irréparable en eux. J’avais des amis rwandais là où je vivais qui chaque jour apprenaient que leurs familles, leurs amis avaient été tué. L’irréparable, c’est la culpabilité que l’on ressent quand on n’a pas de mots pour réconforter les gens. C’était comme un reproche « Toi tes parents vont bien »

Ce que je veux transmettre à mes enfants c’est de ne pas avoir répondu à la haine par la haine mais par la vie et la fierté de ce qu’on est


Témoignage 7 (26 ans à l’époque) – Eugène

L’irréparable c’est pétrir ma peine chaque matin avec des larmes qui peinent à couler. C’est aussi l’odeur de la charogne humaine qui envahi mes vêtements.

Le génocide pour moi c’est tous ces moments d’absurdité où on cesse d’être humain. Tout simplement un produit de boucherie

J’ai débattu pendant longtemps si j’avais le droit de vivre parce que tous mes compagnons avaient été éliminés, toute ma famille avait été éliminée. Je pensais que je n’avais pas le droit. Jusqu’au jour où je me suis rendu compte qu’en refusant de vivre je donnais raisons à on assassin. Je donnais raison à ceux qui ont assassinés ma famille. Il fallait me remettre debout. On doit accepter que la vie continue. Qu’elle ne s’arrête pas juste parce qu’un génocidaire l’a décidé

Le pardon n’est pas un mot qui existe dans mon vocabulaire. Je pardonnerai si on me demandait pardon mais je ne peux pas pardonner dans le vide

Il faut que les Nations Unies changent leur manière de protéger l’humanité si ils se donnent la mission. Si ils interviennent, si ils agissent ou bien tout simplement ils renoncent et on dira « On a laissez le mal triompher »


Témoignage 8 (18 ans à l’époque) : Arlette

L’avion est tombé la nuit et le lendemain on est devenu des serpents, des insectes à éliminés. Quand on se lève le matin à la recherche de la prochaine personne à tué on n’est plus humain, on devient un animal. D’habitude une personne meurt et on a de la tristesse, on pleur. Là c’était devenu tellement banal qu’on regardait une personne mourir  et c’était la chose normale. On ne pouvait pas pleurer parce qu’on avait plus le droit. On se disait « c’est moi la prochaine personne qui vais être tuée. »

Ma plus grande crainte c’est comment je raconte ça à mon fils. Comment on lui transmet ça pour qu’il puisse quand même garder la mémoire mais sans lui transmettre la haine.

Selon moi il n’y a pas de réconciliation parce qu’on n’est pas obligé de se réconcilier. Il y a deux communautés qui vivent chacune de leur coin mais il y a une méfiance, une grande, grande méfiance



A génocidaire in the dock: is France ready to face its responsibilities?

Here is an article I originally published in French in the Huffington Post but that I have translated for this blog


Twenty years after the tragedy, is France finally ready to confront its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide?

Two weeks ago, the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa opened in Paris under much media scrutiny. Captain in the Rwandan gendarmerie until a road accident in 1986, Simbikangwa is accused of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. Although he minimizes his role, Simbikangwa was a member of the « akazu », the inner circle of Hutu power who organized the extermination of almost one million Tutsi and Hutu moderates. On the eve of the genocide, Simbikangwa was the director of the intelligence services in Kigali and allegedly armed militias who filtered out Tutsis at roadblocks, and encouraged them to kill. There is ample evidence against him and several witnesses will testify in court. 

Simbikangwa is not the first génocidaires to face justice but this trial is historical because, for the first time, it occurs in France, a country that has long been accused of serving as a safe haven for génocidaires. Indeed, Simbikangwa had found refuge on the French overseas département of Mayotte before he was arrested in 2008. He is not the only one. Twenty-seven alleged culprits have rebuilt their lives in France, sometimes as working as doctors or pastors. Not one of them has ever faced justice – until today.

Why the heavy silence?

In reality, it is the French political class of the era who is at risk of being in the dock. Seeing how talkative Simbikangwa is, his trial will shed light on the way the genocide was planned and thus perhaps on the ambiguous relationship between Paris and Kigali in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Indeed, the French government then headed by François Mittérand was one of Kigali’s closest allies. 

In October 1990, when a rebel movement called the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked the Rwandan army (FAR), France came to the help of the government in Kigali because it argued that Rwanda was the victim of an external aggression (France omitted to say that the RPF was mainly composed of Rwandan Tutsi who had found refuge in Uganda and whom the Hutu government in Kigali did not want back). In the end, Paris financially and military assisted an authoritarian regime that maintained mono-ethnic policies and was planning a genocide.

Following the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April 1994, the well-planned genocide began within a few hours. Instead of helping the Tutsi, France recognized the Hutu interim government responsible for ongoing massacres and even evacuated some of Habyarimana’s entourage and other local notables. Several of them were even received at the Elysée shortly after. At the end of June, when France finally deployed a humanitarian operation (Operation Turquoise) in order to protect the Tutsi, French soldiers failed to systematically disarm militias and did not arrest perpetrators of the massacres, and certainly not the main authors. Many of génocidaires managed to escape to the Congo (then Zaire).

The absence of political will to bring perpetrators to justice, condemned by the European Human Rights Court in 2004, is likely caused by a fear that France’s role may soon be fully out in the open. Yes, the genocide was planned and committed by Rwandans but as the main ally Paris was in a good position to prevent the killings instead of providing resources to what was to become a genocidal regime. The situation was complex, but French leaders had been warned about the Hutu regime’s plans. Instead, like the rest of the international community, they refused to listen and turned their back on the Tutsi community. Graver still, once the massacres started France took two months to act and when it did, the intervention had contradictory effects. France must therefore assume part of the responsibility.

Simbikangwa’s trial is an important step for the victims who are finally being recognized. It is also a victory for the human rights activists, journalists and academics who have been fighting to bring perpetrators to justice. However, there is still a long way to go. In a recent interview, Alain Ngirinshut, a genocide survivor and vice-president of an association for victims, explained that the Paris city hall still refuses to establish a proper memorial for the victims of the genocide. Twenty years after the massacres, the duty of remembrance remains a difficult task to do. 

Central African Republic and the French Intervention – No longer a Bystander

 A year ago, when then President François Bozizé appealed to the US and “French cousins” to help repel Seleka’s advances on Bangui both countries refused. Angry crowds attacked the French embassy and criticized France’s passivity, especially since the former colonial power has a military presence in the former colony since 2003. When French President François Hollande visited Central African Republic (CAR) in late December he made it clear that he would not mingle in internal affairs, insisting that these days were over. Hollande knows the dangers of renewing its ties with its colonial past.

A year later, the CAR is on the brink of collapse. UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that the country is at risk of genocide if nothing is done. Similarly, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the country is “on the verge of genocide”.

After ousting Bosizé, Seleka leader Michel Djotodia proclaimed himself President. In September, he dissolved Seleka and only integrated some of them into the army, leaving the others unattended to. Since then the country has plunged into chaos as undisciplined rebels commit widespread looting and abuses against those they consider as Bosizé supporters. The deep climate of insecurity has led to the creation of anti-balaka forces (self-defense groups) who have taken up arms against ex-Seleka fighters. The most worrying aspect of the crisis is the rise of sectarian violence between religious communities. Indeed, the majority of the Central Africans is Christian while Séleka fighters are predominantly Muslim, many of them from Chad and Sudan.

So who is going to act now?

In view the gravity of the situation, France has decided to send an additional 800 soldiers to help the 3,600-strong African Union force restore order. France’s decision led an Algerian journalist to state that it signifies a return of “Françafrique” since this new operation comes only ten months after the French intervention in Mali. The debate over France’s reason for intervening is always raised.

Why is France intervening after standing by in March 2013? The main reason cited by Paris is a humanitarian one. The situation is deteriorating badly and grave human rights violations are being committed, including rape and massacres. The self-defense groups are just as bad as Séléka and 460,000 people have already fled. Djotodia is unable to restore order and appears completely lost. For Hollande intervening has now become a question of responsibility. Whether there are real risks of genocide or not, Rwanda still haunts the French political class.

Beyond humanitarian reasons, there are of course security concerns and geo-strategic interests. This is not another Mali where soldiers are dealing with organized jihadists who have taken over a territory. What we are seeing in CAR is a complex social conflagration with, on one side, 15.000 to 20.000 violent Seleka rebels and on the other anti-balaka groups ready to commit massacres against the Muslim population. Nonetheless, there are real concerns that if nothing in done, jihadists who fled Mali and Libya may find refuge in CAR. There are also risks of spillovers and contagion into the two Sudans, the Congo and Chad, none of which are really stable.

Will the belated intervention bring stability to CAR? 1,200 French soldiers are unlikely to restore long-term stability, especially in a country bigger than France. However they will at least support the ill-equipped MISCA in an attempt to restore order. The French also hope that the UN will send additional peacekeepers as quickly as possible. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon recommended 6,000 to 9,000 men.

But what CAR needs is a political solution and France made it clear that it is the role of Central Africans to settle these problems. Since its independence, CAR has never established a strong political structure or arena. Djotodia is clearly unable to deal with the situation. Just a couple of days ago, he denied assertions that the country is at risk of genocide and accused the international community of manipulating public opinion. “For me, there is nothing to show that we can even talk of what is going on as genocide. This is simply vengeance. A regime committed abuses, it is now gone. Its victims are taking revenge, that is all.” “That is all”? Graver still he criticized displaced Christians in the north: “He who wants to drown his dog, accuses it of having rabies, that’s all. Our situation is no less dramatic than that in other countries but it is portrayed as such. It is unfair.” The self-proclaimed President is either blind to the populations’ suffering or he is unwilling to prevent violence.

 As the International Crisis Group states, it’s “better late than never.” The current situation could have been prevented if regional and international organizations had acted early instead of being bystanders. Nobody moved a finger when Seleka staged a coup but the consequences should have been anticipated. The political situation will clearly not be settled through a military intervention but at least some seem to move beyond the bystander role.

A Community of Commitment

“The place to start is with prevention: through measures aimed in particular at building state capacity, remedying grievances, and ensuring the rule of law. My hope is that in the future, the Responsibility to Protect will be exercised not after the murder and rape of innocent people, but when community tensions and political unrest begin. It is by preventing, rather than reacting, that we can truly fulfill our shared responsibility to end the worst forms of human rights abuses.” – Desmond Tutu

I realize that this post is going to be biased because I am working for the Institute that hosted the event I would like to talk about. But my point is not necessarily to promote the work of the Montreal Institue for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) but to show that even though prevention does not seem to be on the minds of policymakers and politicians, civil society groups, NGOs and think tanks are leading the way. Last week MIGS organized a three-day professional training program on the prevention of mass atrocities. The aim of the course was to give participants the chance to understand what is being done in terms of prevention, and to share lessons on existing tools and ways we can come together to prevent these crimes.

There were nine thematic sessions:

  • International Law and the Genocide Convention (Prof. René Provost, Associate Professor, McGill University, Faculty of Law)
  • The Responsibility to Protect (Naomi Kikoler, Director of Policy and Advocacy of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect)
  • Will to Intervene and the Role of National Governments (Frank Chalk (Director of MIGS at Concordia University)
  • The Role of Journalists in Genocide Prevention (Allan Thompson, Professor of Journalism at Carleton University)
  • The Role of the UN and Regional Organizations in Preventing Mass Atrocities (Claudia Diaz (UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide)
  • Mobilizing Technology for Prevention (Colette Mazzucelli, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University)
  • Case Study on Technology and the Syria Crisis (Anwar Abas and Micah Clark, The SecDev Group).
  • Case study on the Arab Spring (Bessma Momani, Senior Fellow at the Centre For International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, and Brookings Institution in Washington, DC)
  • Case Study on Kenya and Hate Speech (Susan Benesch, Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute)

The wisdom of experience

“The aim of humanity is not to survive the future, but thrive in the future.”

Who better to open the training program than Lt-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, someone who has personally seen the consequences of the international community’s failure to act? Speaking about conflicts in general, Lt-Gen. Roméo Dallaire, gave three options for the future: survive it; build a wall; resolve it at the source. Our aim should not be to survive the future, he says, but to thrive and “to attack the source of the rage.” Dallaire’s optimism in the future is something striking considering what he has witnessed. But he continues to believe in the capacity of new generation to shape the future and act as leaders – a fitting start to this training program.

“All the things we said would happen in Syria if we intervened have happened even though we didn’t.”

Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Irwin Cotler gave a impassionate speech on Canada’s need to condemn state-sanctioned cultures of hate and criticize crimes of indifference towards genocide. Looking back at the past, Cotler made it clear that we knew what was happening in Rwanda and Darfur but failed to act. Looking at the present, he underlined the need to hold Iran and the Khomeini regime accountable for a variety of atrocities and human rights violations, including incitement to genocide against the Baha’is. The former minister warned about the regime’s threat both to its people and to international security. Let’s also remember what happened to protesters who took the streets to denounce the 2009 elections, chanting Death to the Dictator…. Cotler’s mention of Iran and his Massacre88 Campaign was timely considering the elections took place on Friday.

Understanding prevention and the Responsibility to Protect

The first two sessions sought to give an overview of genocide and mass atrocity prevention, including the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). While Provost gave an outline of the international legal framework and elements of the crimes of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, Naomi Kikoler focused on R2P. Although signed by a large number of states, the doctrine is often misunderstood by policymakers, politicians, legislators, academics but also by the general public, who see R2P strictly as military intervention, regime change or even neo-imperialism. The Iraq war certainly gave the concept of R2P a bad name. A member of the Global Centre for the Responsibility, Naomi Kikoler’s aim was to underline that states, and international and regional organizations have a responsibility to generate preventive and effective strategies to act when states that are unwilling or unable to protect their own people. These strategies involve a wide range of soft and hard diplomacy. If these tools fail, then outside actors have a responsibility to mobilize other forms of responses. Military intervention is certainly the last tool one wants to use – thus the emphasis on prevention. Despite setbacks, Kikoler believes that many small successes demonstrate that R2P is “something remarkable” but she regrets that Canada is no longer playing the normative role on the international scene. Perhaps the most important lesson learned from Kikoler and Provost is that states, regional and international institutions, but also civil society groups all have a responsibility in the mass atrocity prevention and in the R2P process.


 Bringing R2P to life

Considering the rather poor implementation record of the Responsibility to Protect, Dr. Frank Chalk’s session on the Will to Intervene and the Role of National Governments sought to explain why the international community should act in a preventive manner and why outside actors should intervene in one or another, even when mass atrocities are taking place in far away places. In the global world that we live in today, mass atrocities and genocide have consequences that reverberate throughout the rest of the world. Thinking about the self-interest of states and national governments are mainly, Frank Chalk emphasized that crimes committed in countries such as Sudan or Cambodia will have economic, social, and political repercussions in the US, Canada and Europe. Think about the influx of refugees, risk of pandemics, costs of military intervention compared to preventive tools etc. According to Frank Chalk, national interests “should include the prevention of mass atrocities, not just for humanitarian reasons, but also in the self-interest of our own citizens.”

Things went too far a long time ago: “Time for intervention in Syria was before racist chants became beliefs.”

Bessma Momani’s gave a very realistic view of the crisis in the Middle East. Although this CIGI Senior Fellow gave a comparative analysis of the Arab Spring (Tunisia, Libya, Egypt etc), the discussion quickly focused on the Syrian conflict and the consequences of the passivity of the international and regional organizations (“Time for intervention in Syria was before racist chants became beliefs”). The conflict has become extremely complex, making any form of intervention complicated, dangerous and hard to evaluate. By now, Western troops would do more harm than good, she says, and there is also no potential for regional humanitarian intervention from Jordan, Qatar, Turkey or Egypt. The entire region (and beyond) has stakes in the crisis: 1) Iran looks at Syria as one of the only anti-western states, 2) A battle in Aleppo would give Hezbollah a chance to show its a powerful regional force, 3) What has happened on the internal stage has given Russia a purpose again and it continues to see itself a superpower, and 4) the influx of refugees already has repercussion on neighbouring states, including Turkey. What arming to the rebels? Well how will arms be controlled? Momani’s Syrian case was a clear example of the need to act early. Momani’s realistic view of the conflict was very much appreciated. She acknowledged that Assad has been able to convince the world that there is a danger in removing him considering the sectarian character of the conflict. If the regime falls, what happens the day after? While it doesn’t justify the continuous murder of people we also have to ask the question of the day after.

Everybody can and must contribute to prevention

Claudia Diaz and Allan Thompson’s sessions showed that we all have a role to play in prevention. Diaz focused on the role of international and regional organization. As a member of the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide, she is fully aware of the shortcomings of the UN system and that decision-making is made at the Security Council. Yet it is the role of UN bodies and advisers, such as the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect, to contribute to prevention by alerting relevant actors where there is a risk of genocide and crimes against humanity, and to mobilize for appropriate action. Of course advisers and offices are limited in their action considering that member states make the final decision – they can “only” make recommendations and complement the work of the UN system as a whole. However, if these bodies alert member states, members won’t be able to pretend they did not know.

Allan Thompson fervent portrayal of the role of the media (journalists in particular) was both captivating and moralizing. Thompson reported from Rwanda in 1996 during the mass exodus of Rwandan refugees from eastern Zaire (now DRC) and later wrote a series of article on Rwanda, including on Lt-Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s testimony at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Thompson spoke about the controversies about the role and the impact of the media, the responsibilities of journalists, and audiences’ reactions. After speaking about the significant role of domestic media in inciting genocide in Rwanda, Thompson gave an accurate critique of the lack of coverage and understanding of what was happening on the ground at the time, which he think contribute the contributed to the Rwanda genocide. He raised crucial question: can media coverage have an impact of foreign policy? How should these issues be covered? What is the impact of this coverage on individuals and the general public? And how does one proof this impact? These questions also remain relevant in the world of social media. Today traditional and social media are focused on Syria, but what about Sudan and Burma for example? Who is reporting from there? Journalists have a responsibility to ensure knowledge, he says, and they can do so by sharing a human experience because emotions are a form of knowledge.  His own experience gave a realistic view of the consequences that journalists have when they fail their task: the responsibility to report.

Technology: linking the global to the local

I have previously written about the use of new technologies for PreventionColette Mazzucelli and the two representatives of the SecDev Group both focus on the use of mobile phones, digital activism, crowdsourcing, cyber technology, satellite imagery and crisis mapping for prevention and early warning. I see them as experts on the application of these new technologies to early warning and humanitarian response. Prof. Mazzucelli has been involved in various projects, including geospatial analysis in Darfur and crisis mapping in Kenya and Libya with the Ushahidi (“testimony”) platform and the Standby Task Force, a form of digital activism. She showed that Ushahidi is now used in various situations (emergency situations, monitor elections, map incidents of violence, identify needs on the ground during a natural disaster) and accepts all kinds of report by email, text messages, Twitter, and phone apps. The aim? “Breaking the conspiracy of silence” and “closing the window of opportunity, in which governments may act with impunity.” Documented violence is of crucial importance for early warning and brining perpetrators to justice. I find that what is particularly crucial about her work is the focus on the role of education in developing strategies for prevention. As a professor, she wants to give young generations the necessary knowledge and tools to act on these issues, such how to collect up-to-date information and how to assess scope and scale of mass atrocities. As she emphasized “pedagogy is king. Technology can support human agency, but it’s up to humans to decide.”

Anwar Abas and Micah Clark of the SecDev Group, meanwhile, gave a concrete example of the strategic use of social media and other digital technologies by focusing on the Syrian conflict. The aim of the SecDev Group is to generate real-time analysis and evidence-based analysis to inform policymakers. As I have argued before, technology is provides clear evidence of human rights violations.

The SecDev Group and Mazzucelli are aware of the obstacles and limitations of new technologies, including of the so-called Big Data problem, the fact that only a faction of the huge amount of data collected is actually relevant. For example, if you are looking for videos of human rights violations committed in Syria on Youtube, you will find hundreds. But which ones are actually relevant and authentic? Similarly social media brings a risk of misreporting. Both presentations underlined the need to not only verify data but to understand to local context. This where collaboration between Tech experts, think tanks NGOS, and local communities becomes crucial because it links several kinds of knowledge and links the global to the local.

Dangerous speech – where are the limits of free speech ?

As demonstrated by Radio RTLM in the Rwanda genocide, dangerous inflammatory speech often precedes mass atrocities. This has now been recognized by courts but it remains difficult to identify the link between hate speech, incitement and genocide in a consistent manner. Dr. Susan Benesch is involved in a project that seeks to address this gap. Taking the example of Kenya, Benesch explained that she has been working United Nations’ Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide (SAPG) to establish an analytical framework to identify, monitor and limit the effects of dangerous speech. The project monitors online space ands put emphasis on “smart monitoring” for prevention, that is a means to distinguish dangerous speech from other speech. Her framework is based on five variables: the speaker (degree of influence), the audience (grievances and fears), the speech act itself, the historical and social context, and the means of dissemination. Furthermore, Benesch is working on ways to limit the effect of dangerous speech and prevent violence: stopping the speech and limiting its dissemination, undermining the credibility of the speaker, and immunizing the audience against the speech. Using the last Kenyan elections as a case study, Benesch demonstrated the need to understand and study speech in order prevent violence.


Considering the demand of participants and speakers to remain in touch after the end of the three-day conference, I believe this first training program was a success and I hope it will be the first of many others. I think MIGS managed to create a small network of professionals and practitioners who seek to make the prevention of mass atrocities a reality. One even explicitly suggested the idea creating a network of support for prevention and R2P. By building support at home, we may be able to put pressure on our leaders to commit to prevention as well. As Dr. Frank Chalk explained,  “We must recognize that the key to mobilizing international support to prevent mass atrocities is to first garner domestic political support.” Step by step, these kinds of events organized by civil society groups will create a growing community of commitment. As Roméo Dallaire once said “Peux ce que veux. Allons-y” (“Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s go”).

What I’m reading

A few interesting reads I stumbled upon this week:

Al-Bashir: “As he acts with impunity, many wonder what the “red line” will be for the two Sudans.”

Obama administration and Sudan: “The difference in Obama administration policy and management toward the Syria and the two Sudans crises are stark.”

“The Atrocities Prevention Board’s record to date is decidedly mixed.”

“Today, R2P clings to life support in Syria, as the civilian body count there mounts to appalling levels.”

“Does Syria Mean the End of the Responsibility to Protect?” – 

“The ‘obligation to prevent’ and the ‘obligation to punish’ constitute therefore the core legal obligations the violation of which would render other articles of the Convention meaningless. They are the matrix of the Genocide Convention in that they inform and shape the contours, meaning and implications of the other provisions of the Convention.”

“Despite the narrative from diplomats and journalists that Sudan’s civil war is mostly over, Janjaweed gunmen are still terrorizing the region. This time, no one’s paying attention.” 

Op-ed on Samantha Power’s nomination

How regimes take control of official media channels and push activists onto the Internet.

 “These days, Turks find themselves caught in the crossfire between highly politicized media organizations, so it is not surprising that when people want news they trust their own networks.”

“Amidst intense fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military in Northern Nigeria the need for a political solution to the conflict remains. How could the Nigerian authorities cope with the Islamist insurgency both politically and legally?”




Sudan, responsibility to protect and accountability: not just for perpetrators

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity pleasure to attend a talk given by Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the former United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sudan (2003-2004) and the first one of the first individual to warn the international community about the unfolding genocide in Darfur. Dr. Kapila’s story is reminiscent of Lt-Gen Roméo Dallaire’s experience in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Kapila expected to preside over the Naivasha talks, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement started in September 2003 and supposed to end Africa’s longest war between the north and the south. But he quickly realized that a) the agreement still had a long way to go due to a lack of political will, b) that crimes against humanity were being committed in the Darfur region.


An outgoing speaker, Dr. Kapila asked the audience. If faced with such a crisis, what would you do and who would you go to? First, he reached out to diplomats and high-level representatives at the UN. He realized that great powers actually knew far more about the situation than he did. But they refused to act. One of the reasons was geopolitical considerations and calculations: they didn’t want to compromise on-going peace talks and thought all problems would be solved.

In Sudan, Kapila was told to concentrate on his job: getting humanitarian aid into Darfur and leave the politics. In New York, he was often faced with naivety, denial (despite evidence) and lack of empathy. So what do you when the people and institutions responsible for helping you turn a blind eye? Dr. Kapila decided to blow the whistle and to alert the media. He decided to disobey orders from above because they were immoral and against the very principles of the UN. This time, the UN did respond, peacekeepers were sent, which started a political process. But it was too little too late. Being a whistle blower also caused Kapila his job. Unpopular with many governments and even faced with death threats, he was forced to leave Sudan. But he refused to abandon what had now become a mission: to warn the world about Darfur and about the continuing crisis in Sudan.

The empathy deficit: reasons why we fail


Did the UN and other global institutions learn anything from the Darfur crisis? No. Not if you look at the current humanitarian crisis in Sudan and in other parts of the world. Four million people are affected by the crisis throughout the regions of Darfur, Abyei, the Blue Nile mountains and the Nuba region (South Kordafan). The current political process not based on justice and accountability, and therefore fragmented. As Dr. Kapila stated “Darfur may be called the world’s most successful genocide in that it has gone on for a decade.”

Today the same atrocities are being committed in the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile Region. President Al-Bashir, who has been indicted for war crimes by the ICC in relation to Darfur, continues to run free. Since South Sudan became independent from Sudan two years ago, the regime in Khartoum has embarked on an Islamic purification campaign targeting the ancient peoples of these regions. As in Darfur ten years ago, the aim to remove these ancient tribes of the land in order repopulate the area with Arab tribes. At the heart of the conflict is the same racist idea. Today, one could argue that the situation is even worse. The Sudanese regime has more sophisticated aircraft and better technology today. What is unfolding now is a modern war of attrition of the same ethnic nature as it was in Darfur a decade ago.

The international community has not intervened in any (significant) way. Conflicts are fuelled by greedy and selfish people who benefit from them. Sudan is a powerful country in the economic system and there is a lot of estate interest. For example, we continue to trade with Sudan and sell them arms to Sudan, arms that are used to commit ethnic cleansing.


Copyright: A. Boswell/ MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS. Family hiding from aerial bombing by the government in Nuba Mountains.

Kapila makes it very clear that global institutions such as the UN and the African Union are run by cowards. For the lack of action in Darfur, he clearly points the finger at Kofi Annan. I believe that Dr. Kapila is right when he argues that the responsibility to protect is increasingly becoming the “responsibility to procrastinate.” R2P makes it clear that the international community has a responsibility to protect populations at risk when their leaders fail to do so: “If crimes against humanity it’s everybody’s responsibility to act. But the higher your office the greater your responsibility”. So leaders such as Kofi Annan have failed and have not been held accountable for standing by. Dr. Kapila actually lists twelve reasons why we failed in Darfur and still fail, including denial and naivety, refusal to differentiate between victims and perpetrators, political indifference, disproportionate self-interest, evasion of responsibility, risk aversion, bureaucracy, and, most importantly, human empathy deficit.

Responsibility and accountability

I don’t think Dr. Kapila has lost hope in the UN. As a global institution it can bring people together to work for the common good and to resolve differences. Yet he believes that the UN, as well as other institutions, must be run by people with empathy and leadership. Countries like Canada should break diplomatic ties with Sudan because maintaining normal ties sends a message that committing mass atrocities is fine. Diplomatic isolation and economic embargos will, in the long run, work, according to Dr. Kapila. Civil society leaders and ordinary people have a role to play as well. They can hasten this process of change by putting pressure on leaders and by supporting the right organizations on the ground that are bringing humanitarian aid.

Kapila argues that people with a high office have a greater responsibility to act and a better chance of being heard. But this does not mean should not act. Don’t forget, we are the ones who elect our leaders, especially parliamentarians who are in a position to act as well. We may not sit in these global, regional or national institutions, but policymakers such as parliamentarians are supposed to represent us. We can push the executive to move to that level of leadership and statesmanship. The only question is how much suffering can be tolerated before there is change truly happens. We should not turn our backs either.

Video “Against the Tide of Evil” 

You can also join this ongoing campaign: “We need to talk about Sudan”