THERE is a Roman saying in Latin “Ignorantia juris non excusat” in other words “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”
The laws were published in carved stone on the walls of the Forum, for those who couldn’t read, a town crier would walk up and down ringing a bell and shouting the laws down the streets.
It was and is still seen as the sole responsibility of a citizen or resident to know the laws of the country they inhabit.
If a person doesn’t know the letter of the law, they should at least know the spirit or intent behind it.
For example if you approach a German or Austrian and started talking about the holocaust they often change the topic, not out of shame but they know they could easily end up breaking the law.
This issue has arisen in Rwanda recently with the case of Peter Erlinder and his recent arrest. Genocide denial, minimisation and negation is a section of the law where we cannot have any room for ambiguity.
Firstly Erlinder and his kind claim there is a genocide narrative that the government is trying to purvey, as if the Genocide against the Tutsi is a novel that was written by a single author.
The story of what happened is not a creation of the imagination but the result of testimonies from hundreds of thousands of victims, survivors, witnesses and even the killers themselves.
The sequence of events is still being pieced together case by case but certain facts are unquestionable.
When we look at laws referring to Genocide denial we must first look at the Verbotsgesetz 1947 (Prohibition Act 1947) in Austria, it also formed the basis for West Germany’s holocaust denial laws.
In this law the Nazi Party and all its symbols were banned, it also made it illegal to minimise the effects of the holocaust or to revise the accepted version of history.
Its effect was to almost end all public debate on the holocaust except for special forums like schools and legal debates.
Genocide denial laws are deliberately pedantic because it is the only way to avoid revisionism.
For example the agreed number of the Jewish victims of the gas chambers is 5-6 million, if you say 4.99999999999 then you are minimising and trivialising.
The laws were constructed to prevent the tactics and tools used by revisionists from succeeding, the tactics are the same whether used by David Irving, a well-known revisionist historian or Peter Erlinder.
These categories were identified by Israel Charney, the executive director of the Holocaust institute.
The first tactic is innocence and self-righteousness – they claim that they “just want to know the facts” except the accepted facts are not good enough.
They claim that they want to start afresh but excluding certain facts that underpin the whole story. They often have pre-conceived ideas of what the truth is, they claim the public have been duped into believing a false version of the events. This is to ignore the testimony of the thousands of victims.
Scientificism in the service of confusion – they admit a Genocide happened in theory but there is no way to prove it.
Hence Erlinder takes it as a triumph that no ICTR suspect has been convicted of conspiracy to commit genocide, and sees that as proof that there was no pre-planning of the Genocide.
Conspiracy is the hardest crime to convict, it requires communication intercepts or the testimony of one of the accused to convict others.
Hence Erlinder has used this to purvey a “civilian on civilian” theory, yes neighbour killed neighbour but government officials were behind it all.
Practicality, pragmatism and realpolitik – this is when they say it is impractical to prosecute every person. The leniency shown to thousands of killers is seen falsely as an admission of mutual guilt.
We chose to prosecute the “big fish” but that is hard to prove without convicting the foot-soldiers. The magnitude of what happened here means it would take 200 years to prosecute all the suspects.
They also claim that further prosecutions will only stigmatise the wider population. Idea linkage distortion and time-sequence confusion – this is the favourite tactic, to muddy the waters.
To link the genocide to the downing of the plane to the genocide is to ignore the massive levels of planning than went into implementing this diabolical act.
This is like a gunman pointing a gun at your head, cocking the hammer, then a cat jumps out and startles the gunman and the gun goes off.
One cannot then blame the cat for startling the gunman and thus killing you. If he hadn’t cocked the gun then the cat wouldn’t have been a factor.
Another tactic is to mess with the time sequence, to create confusion, to link certain unrelated events to create a new timeline of events.
Another is to alter the number of victims, hence if you said that only 300,000 died then you are ignoring up to 800,000 deaths. This is where minimisation comes in.
Indirection, definitionalism, and maddening – this is where revisionist really have a field day. When Erlinder refered to it as Genocide in quotes he knew what he was doing he was saying he doubted it happened.
He wanted to engage in a game of definitions and ultimately enrage his opponents, in the hope that it would make them lose focus. He certainly generated an unhealthy amount of anger and Rwandans feel it is their honour and dignity that is hurting more than anything.
However I believe that magnanimity shown to those who offend us will hold us in good stead.
Rama Isibo is a social commentator