I have been trying to understand how genocides can happen in the world. It is one thing to know about genocide, intellectually, and quite another to be in a country and with people which have been so directly and irrevocably affected.
What makes it even more powerful and disturbing for those of us who survived the pogroms in 1959, and witnessed it as it unfolded, is how recently the Rwandan genocide occurred and how, in the immediate aftermath, a vigorous campaign began to deny that a genocide took place, or to argue that it was justified.
From time immemorial, some human beings have shown indescribable cruelty to others. To some degree, it is possible to understand aspects of this brutal behaviour. Some people may act out of fear, for themselves or their family, or because of imminent deadly threat or under direct military orders.
There are ancient themes of war, whereby groups seeking and seizing power dehumanize the other groups over which they seek control.
What I cannot comprehend, however, is what pushes a human being into unthinkable acts of torture and to inflict extended and profound human suffering. I cannot imagine what makes individuals torment and kill people they have shared their lives with: their close neighbours, their children, their mothers and their wives? How can one’s humanity and decency disappear or become buried within?
This is where my capacity to understand fails me.
On March 4-5, 2010, I participated in a Genocide Prevention Forum, held in Arusha-Tanzania. In the opening ceremony, remarks by Adrian Schläpfer, Ambassador of Switzerland to Tanzania, were significant.
He said he believes that “it is worth spending time, energy and resources to fight against one of the most anti-human situations, genocide.” And, that the prevention of genocide was “the responsibility of each of us, each government and society.”
Schläpfer emphasised the following: “It is important that countries from all regions get involved in order to foster an international environment to prevent and sanction genocide. Genocide, he said: “is a highly political act and genocide prevention calls for political response. (...) is a permanent challenge and must be an early action that contributes to strengthening the dignity of human beings...”
Ambassador Schläpfer put the accent on the need to forge alliances against genocide, saying: “People and decision makers throughout the different regions of the world must be sensitised on the need and ways to prevent genocide, as a first step towards an alliance between countries to combat genocide.”
This is more easily said than done. The first international commitment against this heinous crime is the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948.
The preamble of this convention is a pledge against genocide denial by contracting parties. That genocide is a crime; “contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world” is stated in no uncertain terms.
Most importantly, nations recognized that “at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity,” and that they were convinced that, in order to liberate mankind from such an odious scourge, international co-operation is required.”
There is no doubt that the Rwandan Tutsi genocide, in 1994, was methodical and carefully planned, an initiative perpetrated by low-ranking and prominent individuals in government, the private sector, professional circles and amongst others, the Churches.
If the world had listened and had responded to the pleas for help - such a human catastrophe would not have unfolded in the manner it did. That those 100 days in 1994 occurred 46 years after the passing of the CPPCG is an illustration of the extent to which the Convention failed.
Jeanne Farr is an American I met here in Kigali in the summer of 2008. She was with a group which wanted to know more about the 1994 genocide, in Rwanda. I led the group to the genocide memorials in Kigali and Nyamata.
After deep reflection, she later said: “I find myself deeply confused and filled with questions that I cannot find answers to. I am left with a profound sense of sadness at the capacity of my fellow human beings to not only hurt others in unthinkably horrific ways, but also the collective capacity of world powers to ignore and thereby condone such abject human cruelty when it does not benefit them to address it.”
On November 12, 2007, Madeleine Albright and William Cohen formed and co-chaired the Genocide Prevention Task Force (with the US Institute of Peace, the US Holocaust Museum and the American Academy for Diplomacy).
I asked Jeanne what she thought about this task force. The first anomaly, she said: “Not one member of this task force is from the African continent or anywhere in the world where genocides have been identified and publicized.”
This, she felt, “illustrates a major, frighteningly common, and ongoing failure in the conceptual formation of international public policy. Well intentioned, inherently biased and uninformed world leaders trying to address a problem from an ethnocentric and limited perspective.”
Jean believes that UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon should form a task force with representation from Rwanda and other genocide torn countries. She says: “There should be an official UN Mandate to develop a comprehensive plan to: carry out research to understand the genesis of modern genocide; to identify and implement prevention strategies; and, a clear and comprehensive plan to educate leaders (and their populace) within and beyond the UN structure regarding the findings. This can only be done with informed, diverse and powerful (internationally recognized) representation.
I also met Ron Cordes, an American businessman who has been to Rwanda several times. I asked him about the world’s indifference to genocide. He identified the subtle denial of the crime as the core of the problem.
He made reference to Bill Gates who makes the point often, in discussing his Gates Foundation charitable work, that finding effective solutions to combat killer diseases in Africa requires people and organizations in the developed world to place the same value on individual human lives in that continent as they do in their home countries.
For Ron, that same issue is at play with respect to preventing future genocides. “Only when the world becomes a small enough place that a collective humanity is established across continents will there be the political and economic will to take action to represent and protect those being victimized by government regimes seeking their destruction.”
Genocide is a dysfunction existing throughout the history of mankind. It breeds where people are influenced to hate and dehumanize others. This hatred is commonly cultivated under the leadership of patriotism, ethnicity, or religion.
It is the basic responsibility of all people in our world to aggressively question and resist organization or authority whose leadership advocates war, hatred, or violence. However, when events transpire where this does not occur, it is the role of all citizens and nations of the world to intervene.
This role lies with the United Nations. UN forces recognized and reported the organization of genocide prior to 1994. Nevertheless, the leadership of the UN elected not to respond adequately, with predictable disastrous consequences.
Unfortunately, if genocide of this magnitude can occur amongst the people of Rwanda, it is possible to occur again in many places of the world.
Hopefully, the world will not have to learn the lessons of the Rwanda genocide again, and the United Nations will act aggressively when the signs of genocide become evident.