Rwanda Genocide: Lessons For Human Rights Advocacy

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As we approach the 16th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, a great lesson of the genocide is that rather than opportunistically sacrifice human rights on the altar of self interests or definition that excludes other people from the category of humanity, we should train ourselves to transcend the various provincial caves we find ourselves in.

[Issues Of Principle]


On April 7, politically conscious human rights advocates all over the world will join the people of Rwanda to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the most intense genocide in known human history.

It was in the aftermath of the genocide, for which the international community was found more than wanting, that the General Assembly of the United Nations designated April 7, as the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda. On the Day people all over the world are supposed to at least observe a minute of silence at noon local time in each time zone.

As we prepare to commemorate the grotesque inhumanity of human beings to others, what lessons, if any, have we learnt from the genocide?

Before we attempt to draw lessons from what happened during the genocide, it is necessary first to recall the basic facts about the human catastrophe. In April 1994, within the space of one month, close to one million Rwandans, mostly of Tutsi identity, were slaughtered in cold blood in broad day light. During the killing spree, which was broadcast on television every day all over the world, the international community and in particular the great powers that had the capacity to act, maintained
impeccable silence. Why the inaction?

If we are to commemorate the Rwanda genocide in any meaningful manner, we must ask why the international community maintained a thunderous silence, when 50 years earlier the world had said “never again,” following the holocaust of the Jews. Was it because, as Hegel observed, that “What experience and history teach is this, that nations and governments have
never learnt anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”?

A review of human rights history shows that a fundamental problem with human rights advocacy is twofold. The first is, a definitional problem, namely, who is accepted or included in the category of “human.” Here, the Orwellian double-speak language in Animal Farm captures the gist of the problem at best: some people are more human than others. In the worst case
scenario, the “other” is dehumanized or depersonalized. Once the “other” is dehumanized,” she or he need not be treated with respect and dignity as a human being.

A few notable examples will illustrate the point. In 1957 in the USA in the case of Dred Scott, the Supreme Court ruled that a slave who was seeking freedom, was not entitled to human rights or legal redress afforded by the Constitution because the writers of the Constitution did not consider a Black human being a juridical person. There is some truth to the assertion, because at the time slaves were regarded by their White masters as chattel property.

Similarly, after World War II, when Mahatma Gandhi was mobilizing Indians to claim their legitimate right of self determination, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister otherwise renowned as champion of freedom, told his Secretary of State for the Colonies that the right to self determination enunciated in the Atlantic Charter of 1941 was not meant to be applicable to Indians, African or Arabs. Why? According to Churchill, Indians, Arabs and Africans were somehow not “people” enough, qualified to exercise the right.

The dehumanization of the “other” occurs often in situation of wars, whereby people on the opposing side are not regarded as quite human. It is the psychology of dehumanization, for whatever reason, that allows military ruthlessness against other people. Without the psychology, without military people dehumanizing the “other”, it would be difficult to kill at will other people who are just as human.

In the case of the Rwanda genocide, as a prelude to the despicable atrocities, the Tutsi were first dehumanized. For the perpetrators of the genocide, the Tutsi were referred to as cockroaches and not as fellow Rwandans. Could it be that for different perverted historical rationale, the great Western powers that had the capacity to intervene and prevent the genocide, did not act because they did not regard the lives of Rwandans --Africans-- as worth defending because they were not quite human?

Couched as a question, could the Western powers have tolerated a genocide of that magnitude in Europe or against European people? The second component of the problem of human rights advocacy is the fetish of self-interest. More often than should be acceptable or reasonable, human rights Western advocates and governments tend to take action only when their interests coincide with those of people whose human rights are being violated. The obverse is the case: they shy away from acting when
violations of human rights do not interfere with their self-interests.

Here, we seem not to have learnt from history. Take the case of the Jewish holocaust. The fact of the matter is that persecution of Jews that was set in train in the 1930s and was to lead obscenely to the holocaust was not secret to most Western powers. Most if not all maintained deafening silence and did not act robustly against Hitler because they were keen to protect their self-interests. By the time they decided to act, arguably out of self-interest, millions of Jews had been gassed to death. Put
plainly, Jews were sacrificed by the great powers on the altar of self-interest.

Similarly in 1994, it would seem that the lives of thousands of Rwandans were sacrificed on the same altar of self-interest. Here again, the plain fact is as clear as the tropical high noon. From the beginning of the genocide, Western news media --television-- brought the gruesome killings to our rooms every day. Yet the great powers with the capacity to make a positive difference did not intervene, most likely because they deemed it was not in their self-interest, however self-interest is defined.

As if we have not learnt the lesson of history, more recently, a number of Western human rights groups and the media, have sought to disproportionately direct a search light on the plight of homosexuals in the continent. Although homophobia should be tackled in Africa, it cannot properly be dealt with without taking into account the entire spectrum of human rights in the continent or in a particular country.

Without prejudicing the case for the human rights of homosexuals in Africa, it would seem that Western human rights groups and the media have embarked on relentless mobilization on the issue because it coincides with their self-interests. Otherwise, how can these same groups and the media explain their relative silence on graver human rights violations, such as the ones that occurred in Northern Uganda for two decades, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Ethiopia under the current regime?

Unfortunately, with a twist of irony, some of the same human rights groups and the media which did not act with vigor during the genocide have recently alleged that the government of Rwanda is intolerant to homosexuals. Having just returned from Rwanda where we conducted a 10-day human rights forum for young human rights leaders from all over the world, during which time we asked President Paul Kagame directly whether the government was going to criminalize homosexual acts, I can say without
fear of contradiction that the allegation is patently a clear misrepresentation of the position of the government.

In fact, on December 19, 2009, Tharcisse Karugarama, the Minister of Justice made an unambiguous statement on the issue --that the government had no intention to criminalize homosexual acts, saying that sexual orientation is a private matter not state business. Both the statements by President Paul Kagame and by Justice Minister Karugarama can easily be verified.

The tarnishing of the record of the government of Rwanda on human rights with the allegation is particularly sad given the manifold achievements the government has registered. The achievements of the government of Rwanda speak far more eloquently than any malicious allegations aimed at scoring political points. A few examples can illustrate the facts.

Probably no government in the world can boast of empowerment of women on the scale achieved by the government of Rwanda. The figures are simply astounding. For example, more than 56% of legislators in the lower chamber of Parliament are women and well over 30% of Cabinet Ministers are women.

The Government of Rwanda’s fight against corruption is second to none, and would be the envy of governments the world over. It is fair to say that few, if any governments, in the world have vigorously campaigned against corruption and done all that is humanly possible to ensure transparency and accountability than the government of Rwanda.

Equally significant is the government of Rwanda’s record on decentralization and involvement of people in decision making at the grass roots, as well as consolidation of post-conflict governance. Indeed, Rwanda has put in place practical and tested solutions to conflict management and prevention that should be supported and admired by all who care about the welfare of the people.

Indeed, based on knowledge of contemporary African history, it is fair to conclude that if Africa had about 10 leaders of President Kagame’s focused commitment to the welfare of people, intolerance to corruption and discipline in building durable institutions, the continent would realize it potentials for human security and investment.

In short, on balance, the people of Rwanda, under enlightened leadership committed to the service of society and grounded in the African communitarian ethics of ubuntu, have from the ashes of the genocide risen like a tidal wave to write a new chapter in the annals of peace and reconciliation, in which all humanity should take pride.

Given the progressive strides made following the genocide, the people of Rwanda deserve our solidarity rather than selective moralizing on issues that pale in significance when compared with the actual achievements of the government and people in the context of otherwise very difficult set of circumstances.

As we approach the 16th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, a great lesson of the genocide is that rather than opportunistically sacrifice human rights on the altar of self interests or definition that excludes other people from the category of humanity, we should train ourselves to transcend the various provincial caves we find ourselves in.

The allegorical caves could be caves of racism, ethnic chauvinism, national jingoism, patriarchy, homophobia, classism, or adhoc interests.

If we are to realize the vision and notion of human rights as universal, indivisible and interdependent and if we are to properly pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of the Rwandan people, we should stand in principled solidarity with them.

With the memory of the genocide in the background, we should extend hands of solidarity and support to the people of Rwanda who are doing their mighty best to scale the odds to fashion a new dawn for the reconciliation and renewal of society in which people can find space to live in peace and harmony.

Only with demonstrable and principled solidarity with the people of Rwanda can we do some justice to the Day of Reflection in April, and in the process expand the frontiers of human rights rather than undermine its practical ideals and appeals.


Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu is the UNESCO Chair in Human Rights and Professor of History, University of Connecticut, USA

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