Thoughts on Rwanda… (and genocide)

Exactly 20 years ago this evening, a plane was shot down over the hills of Kigali. At that time I was much too young to do analysis or research, let alone to board a plane to be on spot. So I cannot actually imagine how it must have been that day and the following 100. However, thanks to witnesses both in paper form and real persons I try to somewhat understand and critically put in context with what happens today in and around Rwanda, most notably eastern DRC, as well as in other place such as the Central African Republic. A few thoughts:

1994 the world failed. Everyone, besides a few exceptions. Lt.-Gen. Dallaire tried to motivate Annan to press the UN to do something. Nameless individual hero(in)es saved other nameless people. A few humanitarians, both Rwandans and foreigners tried to do what they could (which was not enough since many fellow colleagues were evacuated). And so forth. But that is not the point.

Genocide happened, and the pervasive brutality with which it happened as well as the evenly pervasive cognitive refusal of the observing international community make a case for tracing a glimpse of the discourse that goes with the word.

Genocide, as per the related international convention, is any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

With exception of (e) where I do not have sufficient information all aspects are, in a saddening way, covered by what interahamwe (those who work together) and the Hutu power part of the then Rwandan government have done between April and June 1994. Despite Dallaire’s (and perhaps other engaged UN staffers) attempts to bring the unfolding cruelties to a halt, it was as if the world had decided to let this genocide happen and concentrated on dealing with its consequences. So it took the RPF, led by the late Fred Rwigyema and Paul Kagame to stop genocide. After a failed attempt to invade Rwanda a little earlier, the group managed, from its Ugandan refugee camps/rear bases to attack Rwanda and, by consecutively taking power over more and more areas, wiping out the génocidaire forces.

Now the RPF is a political party and Paul Kagame is President of Rwanda. He, and many other members of his government and military (the former RPA that turned into RDF, as compared to FAR which was the name of the former army implicated in genocide) have become very controversial figures. Like almost no other recipients of foreign aid, they have in the two decades since the genocide managed to reach a level of efficiency that is outstanding in terms of how to use aid dollars. This converges with another dynamics – to rebuild the country from within – that found an interesting example in the agaciro (dignity) fund created to compensate for aid revenue losses as Rwanda was accused to back M23 in eastern DRC. Both in working with foreign and domestic revenue, Rwanda has excelled in remaking its economy and turned into a flagship example of post-conflict reconstruction, development, and growth. While the government that made most of this happen is hailed for its conviction, it is evenly criticised for violating rights within and around its borders. Political repression and press censorship inside, invasion for economic and hegemonic ends outside – this is what commentators and observers deplore.

The interesting point with all that is: it does not have anything to do with the fact that genocide happened, that it needs to be commemorated and that it must serve Rwandans and any other people in the world as a lesson and a reminder to not let it happen ever again. Now, as Rwanda experiences the 20th anniversary, what has the world learned? I am afraid, nothing at all…

There is no real sign the world would step in quicker and more determined if genocide was to happen. To be clear on this, and bearing in mind the aforementioned definition, ever since Rwanda there has – luckily – been no genocide. A key aspect of the definition is its directionality. It needs to target an identifiable group for any of its traits and target it with an aim of destruction. There have been numerous conflicts, wars, and other instances of organised and/or political violence and many of them have certainly been comparatively cruel, devastating, and deadly for victim, survivors, refugees, yes even bystanders to some extent. But all Darfurs, Colombias, Congos, Sri Lankas, Yugoslavias, Afghanistans, and so on have not had the very same surgical precision than genocide in Rwanda. The last time such happened was most certainly the holocaust. So, what implications?

First of all, it does not mean that things are less cruel if we do not call them genocide. It helps us, first and foremost to develop an understanding of all conflicts, and their respective specificities, we are dealing with in our days and it helps us to keep humility towards the genocide in Rwanda, in particular in these days but in general.

Secondly, there have been numerous incident that seemed very much similar to genocide in the past two decades. Srebrenica, Makobola, Bouaké, Bojaya – just to name a few. Darfur has been called genocide by activists for over ten years. Eastern Congo has been termed a counter-genocide by many. It is beyond debating that these horrific moments of violence must have been as cruel and deadly for the implicated human beings as the genocide in Rwanda. The same holds true for the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. But genocide is not a term that describes how the people exposed to such feel. It is a technical-judicial-political term that explain how action needs to be shaped in order to be classified as such within a framework of various legal definitions for circumstances of organised violence.

Thirdly, to follow up immediately, there is no need to use the word genocide in inflationary ways. Modern penal jurisdiction has developed a set of definition for circumstances that entail massive and/or targeted violence. The Rome Statute includes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. Chapter VII of the UN charter is even more lenient, talking about threats to peace. The international community – be it states, multilateral, or non-governmental actors – has enough legal underpinning to get active in cases like Darfur or Syria. Or eastern Congo. Or the Central African Republic. To put it bluntly, no one needs the genocide label to do more in order to stop murder in places like Bor, Aleppo, or Masisi. The use of genocide, or more precisely the diplomatic-rhetoric dance around the term, has neither helped a swift intervention in 1994 nor does it help Central Africans, Sudanese, or Malians today.

To put it the easiest possible way: It is about must, can, and want.

These three modal verbs aptly reflect the policy options: If genocide happens, the international community must intervene. Therefore it sometimes avoids the so-called ‘g-word’. However, the world can always intervene if the UN charter is violated or jeopardized, or the Rome Statute applies. It just does not do so most of the time. Last but least, reality often shows a picture where the international community only intervenes if it really wants.

Then, quid? Certainly, genocide or not genocide is not an excuse for not acting. If the world shall be neoliberal interventionist such as many western power brokers want it to be, then the latter should make sure to intervene everywhere, whenever, and save everyone. If not so, then we should let each society deal with its problems but beware of judging anything. Then, we should revisit our epistemologies. Genocide concerns politics and populaces. Violence concerns politics and individuals. Genocide entails organised (or in Hannah Arendt’s terms also: ‘banalised’) violence that is used against populaces and thus impacts on individuals. That does not need to be a difference always, but oftentimes it is.

In Rwanda, from April to June 1994, the violence fulfils all qualities necessary to call it genocide, and therefore we do so and have an occasion to be reminiscent of that the following days and weeks. In other cases, things are similar but not the same. Eastern Congo suffered from organised violence ever since the early 1990s (some of which attributed to post-genodice Rwanda) but it has never shown the qualities necessary to classify it is a genocide. While many more have died in war and due to war-related dynamics, and the humanitarian consequences as nowhere else in the past 20 years, there has never been one single identifiable group such as in Rwanda. And this is one of the many reasons to commemorate these days. While doing so, we should concentrate on what commemorate means – it is neither about lowering nor heightening the events in Rwanda as compared to any other violence that is commemorable, it is simply about commemoration, or kwibuka.


In honour of the survivors and the victims.







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