THE MAXIM that history repeats itself does not necessarily mean that the same event will occur again in the same setting but in a different time period. What it does is caution that the tragedy that befell others may come knocking on one’s door should he or she not heed history’s lessons.
Thus, the adage is imploring us to take preventive measures seriously. Which is why those who would wish to avoid the tragedy of Rwanda twenty years ago ought to look into the mind of Rwanda.
Let us suppose for a moment that Rwanda is a person. Most of us know someone who remains resilient despite whatever rough patches they have traversed on their journey through life. And when they tell us their story, we tend to assume that we necessarily understand what they have been through.
But there are, of course, chances that, depending on its gravity, we may understand their misfortune. At some point, however, the victim may wonder how much the listener has understood, and even wonder silently: Do they really understand?
In the case of Rwanda’s tragedy, the world sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t. Consider this: Since the Genocide against the Tutsi in 1994, there’s increased understanding of the international community’s responsibility in situations where systematic abuses may result in mass murder.
There is ample evidence of the international community having moved substantially towards closing the indifference gap.
It is true that Rwanda’s tragedy provided the impetus for the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a permanent court to replace ad-hoc mechanisms such as the Arusha set-up.
Similarly, Rwanda was on the minds of world leaders when, at the 2005 UN World Summit, they adopted the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which obliges states to protect their populations from mass-atrocity crimes, and when they affirmed the international community’s responsibility to intervene where states have failed in this obligation.
Debate rages on over whose interest these two mechanisms serve, not least because of what critics claim is their subjective application. However, that they were intended as efforts to close the international indifference gap is beyond dispute.
It still remains the case, though, that to be intended for a purpose is one thing, while actually serving that very purpose effectively is quite another.
And for Africa, Rwanda was on the mind of leaders from across the continent when the African Union made a decision to set up regional rapid response mechanisms, of which most are in the process of being implemented.
Taken together, therefore, one can argue that over the past twenty years or so, Rwanda has served as a staircase for the world in terms of elevating its capacity for preventing mass atrocity, a clear boost to the human conscience.
Conduct that is contrary to these developments has also been observed over the same period of time.
Two examples will suffice. France’s recent conduct during the Genocide commemoration lost much of the symbolism it could have carried because of the thousands of ordinary French citizens who sought to distance themselves from their government’s indecency.
Inside and outside France, they chose openly to pay their respects to the victims of the Genocide against the Tutsi. Others, a group calling itself RBF-France-Forum de la Memoire flew to Rwanda and visited the Genocide Memorial in solidarity.
Meanwhile, philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy told off his country’s politicians and urged them to own up to their responsibility during the Genocide in Rwanda, before adding: “what is needed above all is a return to reason, not to mention decency.”
Less publicised but equally abhorrent, especially given the timing, was the recent statement by Zambian Security Minister Jacob Mpepo that his country would not send Genocide suspects to Rwanda because the two countries do not have a standing extradition treaty.
Mpepo’s arguments certainly have some legal basis. However, they fall short of acceptable moral standards, especially given the nature of the crime under consideration.
Such is the world that a tragedy that ought not to invite debate as to how to handle its perpetrators continues to divide opinion and stymie efforts directed at ensuring that it does not happen again.
While for some Rwanda has provided the lessons necessary to ensure that history does not repeat itself, for others it serves the useful purpose of providing an arena for playing politics of a very peculiar kind.