Why the Genocide against the Tutsi should steer global conscience

A Member of Parliament for north Devon in the British House of Commons once got to his feet to ask the UK Foreign Minister on an urgent issue.

“Would he instruct the British delegation at the United Nations to raise immediately, in the Security Council, as a threat to peace, the killing of members of the Tutsi Tribe by the Rwanda Republican Government, as a violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide…does the Honourable Gentleman not feel that Her Majesty’s Government should be doing more to stir the conscience of the world against these barbaric acts?”

The MP was not alone. A Swiss national working for the Rwandan regime resigned in disgust at what he judged was the organised and systematic genocidal slaughter of Tutsis.

The genocide was also condemned by the philosopher and historian Bertrand Russell who called it ‘the most horrible and systematic human massacre we have had occasion to witness since the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis.’

All this was in December 1963.

Fast-forward 30 years to 1993 - one year before the Genocide against the Tutsi.  

A report to the UN Security Council by its own Special Rapporteur to Rwanda who had been in the country researching atrocities concluded that wide-scale massacres of thousands had taken place since 1990 and that such acts conformed to the definition of genocide given in the Genocide Convention; the victims were almost all Tutsi and had been targeted ‘solely because of their membership in a certain ethnic group and for no other objective reason’.

His report reinforced views expressed by another independent international commission and numerous messages by diplomats to their home governments in Europe and America.

The Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, like his predecessor Grégoire Kayibanda 30 years earlier, denied everything. And the UN and international community, as in 1963, chose to do nothing.

Less than a year later the apocalypse came to Rwanda. Even as thousands – men, women and children, babies and unborn fetuses – were being murdered everyday, and hundreds of thousands of Tutsi women and young girls systematically raped in 100 days, the perpetrators were already carefully covering their tracks.

Denial of the crime went hand in hand with the organised and planned killing.

Members of the interim genocidal regime travelled to regional and western countries on a propaganda mission in April and May 1994, telling the media, political leaders and the UN that any ‘massacres’ were just a spontaneous’ reaction by a few angry citizens and soldiers at the death of their president.

One minister told the media in Nairobi at the start of May when more than 300,000 were already dead that any killings were just due to ‘soldiers on holiday.’

Denials came too from senior clergy of all faiths who were close to the Habyarimana regime and harboured its ideology and from the regime’s ambassador at the UN Security Council.

Their strategy was simple. Deny the facts and divert the blame. First, there was, of course, no genocide, only massacres. And in any such ‘massacres’ the killers were in fact the victims, the innocent, maligned party.

It was Tutsis and moderate Hutus who had actually carried out the killing against them. Or, they persuaded those who would listen, both sides were killing each other so no side was responsible.

They blamed everyone but themselves - the RPF, the Ugandans, the CIA and USA, the Belgians, the UK, Western NGOs.

In the camps in Zaire where the genocidal regime, its military and militia were allowed to reform, rearm, retrain and escape any prosecution in the months after the Genocide was ended in July 1994, the perpetrators were able to rebrand themselves as victims, as democrats, as human rights crusaders, as misunderstood and misrepresented.

Since 1994, genocide ideology and denial have continued to grow, often slowly and imperceptibly. It is like a virus – it morphs and creeps and changes shape as it moves through society, infecting those journalists, academics, politicians and NGO’s along the way who perhaps know nothing about the genocide, or who jump on this particularly heinous band-wagon purely as a way to score political points against the current government.

Naïve lawyers at the international court in Arusha (ICTR) turned up to defend clients knowing nothing about 1994 but within months become fervent, radicalised disciples of denial, holding conferences in Europe that bring together a motley band of academics, media, NGOs and perpetrators to celebrate the triumph of impunity.

So how can we fight such ideology and denial?

We need to educate people to recognise this disease in all its many shapes and sizes, then eradicate it using the very proofs, archives, testimony, documents and research that all deniers fear most.

Like any denial of the truth – take climate change deniers for example - such people try to move the conversation onto areas away from the central incontrovertible facts.

So they steer their argument purely onto the plane crash of 6 April 1994 that killed the president; Or on the person of Paul Kagame; or the plight of the refugees in the camps.

When faced with talking about the months April to July, on the role of hate radio RTLM, the Interahamwe militia or the personal acts of members of the military or genocidal government, they suddenly go quiet.

They don’t want to talk about the authors of the apocalypse - its architect Theoneste Bagosora, Anatole Nsengiyumva the butcher of Gisenyi and Bisesero, Ferdinand Nahimana the author of hate radio RTLM, or Agathe Habyarimana whom the French Council d’Etat judged ‘had played a central role within the inner circle of power in Rwanda and had participated as such in the preparation and planning of the genocide’.

We need to take action to call out denial when we see it in the media and social media, hard and often fruitless work though this seems.

When in 2014 the BBC aired an hour-long peak time revisionist programme there was a deafening silence from the rest of the media – and indeed within the BBC itself, as if this was all just so very normal behaviour.

There was simply no interest in whether there had been denial or not because Rwanda was just not worth the air or print time – despite the fact a formerly trusted and respected international media outlet had produced a work of staggering, and frankly disgraceful, denial.

Yet, in marked contrast, this same BBC and other media outlets in the UK have been buzzing with 100s of hours covering the case of former London mayor Ken Livingstone and his revisionist remarks on Zionism and Hitler.

Not all denial is equal it seems, at least at the BBC.

We need to keep prosecuting the guilty. Impunity is one of the genocide ideologists greatest weapons. If those who planned, organised and took part in the genocide feel they can get away scot free, that the international community has no will to hold them to account, then humanity itself, as well as the lives of survivors, is diminished.

If we are serious about observing the Genocide Convention and fighting impunity can we allow extradition cases like the current one in London that is still dragging on after 10 years?

Or cases in France such as the priest Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka and prefect Laurent Bucyabaruta that have been going on for a simply justice-defying 22 years? Or long-term investigations in Belgium, or Italy, or a host of other western and African countries such as Zimbabwe which today harbours Protais Mpiranyi, the most notorious of wanted killers.

Can we allow justice to be perpetually stalled due to domestic political or financial reasons? What does that say about the worth of Rwandan lives? Had 8, let alone 800,000 Europeans or Americans been killed in 1994 would countries in the West have sat on their hands so effectively when it came to seeing justice served?

It is notable that suspected Islamic terrorists, for example in France, have enormous police and judicial resources thrown at them, yet there is only one tiny and hugely under-resourced genocide crimes unit that is simply overwhelmed with dozens of cases pending.

At the current rate of three genocide cases tried in 23 years in Paris it would be take more than 250 years to bring most of the accused before justice. In the meantime such mass killers are free to live long, free and happy lives – unlike their victims.

Over 600 alleged perpetrators are still at large, many living in the West. One survivor noted: “imagine if you will an Auschwitz survivor who comes back to his neighbourhood, greets his next door neighbour and recognises the SS officer who manned one of the watch towers in the camp.

That’s kind of what it’s like to be a Tutsi survivor in one of the major European cities.

The survivors find themselves being taunted by their old executioners on the sidewalks in Liege or in the markets in Brussels, Paris, Lyon and London.

In Arusha, convicted génocidaires like Colonel Anatole Nsengiyumva, a man with tens of thousands of deaths at his door, benefits from continued UN largesse – not just a meagre already-served 15 year sentence courtesy of appeal judge Theodore Meron, but now he has a chauffeur to drive him around town, a luxurious safe house to live in, a cook and cleaner, a doctor and a physio, even a generous UN allowance to enjoy.

Retired genocidaire really do have a pleasant life.

He is, effectively treated as a UN employee with all the attendant perks - as are the other released genocidaires.

The Genocide architect Theoneste Bagosora will be able to apply for early release from the end of next year. If Judge Theodore Meron grants that, as is his usual practice, Bagosora will have served a desultory 23 years in prison.

That works out roughly at 15 minutes served per Rwandan life. It’s really not very much. What signal does this send to the proponents of future genocides or war crimes?

The American Richard McCall, chief of staff, of USAID noted: ‘I get the sense that the genocide in Rwanda is becoming an inconvenience for us – the international community. We expect the Rwandans to put this tragic episode of human history behind them and get on with the future. Don’t dwell on the past. It is as if we are dealing with a country that came out of a fairly normal civil war. Nothing is normal about genocide’.

Rwanda today looks to the future – but it needs the international community to assist it, not just with financial or trade deals, with manufacturing expertise or manpower training.

It needs its friends abroad to fight hard to root out from their own shores those who continue to harbour genocide ideology and to take a zero tolerance towards perpetrators.

It needs us all to ‘continue to stir the conscience of the world against these barbaric acts’ as that British MP pointed out 54 years ago.

Dr Andrew Wallis is a UK-based freelance journalist, academic and writer who has extensively written about Rwanda and the Great Lakes.

This article is extracted from his remarks in London at the event to mark the 23rd commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi on April 7.