When a murderous rampage clouded Rwanda in 1994, an immediate debate session ensued within the corridors of the United Nations Security Council in New York.
This debate was neither about how the strong nations would come in to quell the violence nor about how the perpetrators would be brought to justice. Instead it was about finding the right terminology to call the horrendous events.
West turns blind eye
While the term “Rwanda Genocide” was later agreed upon by the Council, the simple explanation that was given to events in Rwanda were “civil war” and “tribal conflict,” despite being well documented in the media and elsewhere.
As the West wasted time in useless debates, the events went on to claim victim after victim, until one million people perished for committing no crime other than being Tutsi.
Twenty years on, the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is remembered all over the world as one of the worst and most ignored tragedies of the human race.
Despite Rwanda being a member of the UN Security Council at the time, peacekeeping troops did absolutely nothing but watch hopelessly as onslaughts engulfed the country.
Scholars believe that hadn’t Rwanda been of little significance to Western powers, it would have attracted attentions and the Genocide perpetrators would probably not have been as successful as they were.
“The UN and major powers such as the US and the UK turned their back on Rwanda in 1994 because Rwanda was of little strategic interest. They saw Rwanda as this tiny, landlocked central African nation that had little economic or military relevance,” Dr. Phil Clark, an Associate Professor at the University of London, told The New Times.
“At the time, the US was also reeling from its disastrous intervention in Somalia and the last thing the Clinton administration wanted was to get embroiled in another African conflict. So Clinton engaged in all manner of linguistic gymnastics to ensure Genocide in Rwanda was ignored and the US did not have to act.”
Clark has authored several papers on Africa, among which include a 2012 publication titled “How Rwanda Judged its Genocide.”
In the interview with this newspaper, Clark argues that shortly after the Genocide, guilt over the West’s non-intervention was the driving force behind foreign donors’ relations with Rwanda and that they needed the country to show that their broad aid agendas aren’t in vain.
He added: “In the last ten years, the situation has shifted and donors have related favourably to Rwanda more because of an appreciation for Rwanda’s effective use of foreign aid. In an era where critics keep saying that foreign aid is akin to pouring money down the drain, Rwanda shows that it is possible for a post-conflict developing country to combat corruption and use aid for the betterment of its people.”
Tito Rutaremara, a Senator and senior cadre in the Rwanda Patriotic Front, believes that despite the unquestioned non-intervention, several individuals and governments in the West will stop at nothing to belittle the Genocide, in order to avert their direct involvement in the tragedy.
“There are those who were behind Juvenal Habyarimana’s government and directly supported the actions of Interahamwe; those who were friends with Kigali like the French, then those who were neutral like the British and the Americans, who thought that Africans were killing themselves as usual,” Rutaremara said.
“Naturally, after the Genocide, those who were directly involved resisted it and supported revisionist theories – but those who were passive, like Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Britain, slowly began to appreciate what had happened and began to act positively by apprehending the Genocide criminals who had sought refuge in their lands.”
Rutaremara then pointedly accused the French for having the slowest response in the post-Genocide era, despite having had the most direct involvement among western powers.
“The French began to negate the Genocide and avoided reference to their involvement in any way possible. To date, France has failed to accept its role and continues to provide refuge for known genocide fugitives.”
Change of heart?
It is only but recently that France has tried the first Genocide fugitive on its soil. Pascal Simbikangwa, who had for long roamed the streets of Paris freely finally appeared in court to answer for his role in the Genocide against the Tutsi.”
He was last month convicted to 25 years in prison, while the French prosecution had sought life sentence.
The case which began on February 4, in France, seemed to prompt positive commentary internationally. However, Genocide survivors in Rwanda offer no special thanks for a trial they believe should have happened twenty years ago.
“Simbikwanga’s trial in France is just a political show for France. If it was anything more than that, it should have happened years ago and not today – all they want is publicity and to divert the world from their own role in the Genocide 20 years later,” said Dr Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the President of Ibuka, said.
Ibuka, loosely translated as “Remember”, is the umbrella organisation for Genocide survivors’ associations in Rwanda.
“If France desires to do something meaningful for the memory of Genocide victims, it should put more emphasis on trying not just one case but the twenty or so genocide fugitives living happily in French towns,” he added.
Dusingizemungu’s argument is well shared by Clark, who believes that France undoubtedly played a key role before and during the Genocide because of its fear of losing influence in Central Africa.
“Francois Mitterrand’s government actively supported Habyarimana’s government and was involved in the planning of the Genocide. France helped train the Interahamwe before 1994, actively supplied arms to extremists within the Habyarimana government, and later through Operation Turquoise, protected many of the Genocidal leaders as they fled into neighbouring countries,” Dr. Clark said.
“France as a nation has never really come to terms with its complicity in the Genocide. The hope is that the Pascal Simbikangwa marked the start of this long overdue national interrogation of France’s role in Rwanda.”
Just this year, the UN resolved to officially recognise this Rwandan tragedy as “the Genocide against the Tutsi” – which, according to several observers, is one important step in combating revisionists, who continue with their rhetorical campaigns.
UN declarations, as we have seen in the past, are often abstract and can be easily ignored. However, what is more powerful is the insistence that revisionist campaigns are both historically inaccurate and politically destructive.
More work left
Judging from true realities and expert opinions, the Rwandan Diaspora in Europe, North America, Africa and elsewhere needs to take it upon themselves to counter historical manipulations and insist on honesty about the nature of the Genocide and conflict in the Great Lakes more broadly.
There has been a sea of change in regards to actions of previous actions of European countries which provided safe haven to Genocide suspects. Now, majority of these countries are either extraditing suspects to Rwanda or prosecuting them on their own soil.
The fact that the ICTR recently transferred several cases to Rwanda and the European Court of Human Rights gave the green light to Sweden’s extradition of Sylvere Ahurogeze, has paved the way for European countries to finally deal with the issue of Genocide suspects on their territories.
Whereas there has been a slow process in Europe, the momentum now is towards extraditions or domestic prosecution of these individuals.
Extradition is also a good incentive for many European countries in the era of austerity: domestic trials are expensive; so many European governments prefer to send suspects back where they came from rather than bearing the costs of domestic prosecutions.