Academics, Lawyers and Journalists joined as one in Genocide Denial

What does it mean to deny past atrocities like genocide? How does it affect the future of a country like Rwanda where it was carried out?
Professor Peter Erlinder
Professor Peter Erlinder

What does it mean to deny past atrocities like genocide? How does it affect the future of a country like Rwanda where it was carried out?

How does it affect the memories of surviving victims and families of those who have been permanently silenced by perpetrators? Isn’t there a negative message to the rest of the world especially the denial of the life of certain groups, or about prevention of future atrocities?

The arrest of American Law Professor Peter Erlinder in Kigali, Rwanda on May 28, 2010 by Rwandan authorities was an important historical moment vis-à-vis how the fact and the rhetoric of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi operate in the international arena.

The reaction to Erlinder’s trial on charges of genocide denial by many in the Western media, academia and government says much about the continued use of double standards to judge this genocide in Africa compared to similar events in Europe.

History repeated itself. The US government which, in the summer of 1994, denied as long as it could that genocide was happening in Rwanda, in June 2010 pleaded for Erlinder who denies it ever happened. P.J. Crowley, State Department spokesman, told reporters on June 3, 2010 that U.S. officials were closely monitoring Erlinder’s situation and had been in touch with officials in Rwanda.

“We want to be sure that he is accorded all of his rights,” Crowley said. “We are pressing the Rwandan government to resolve this case quickly and would like to see him released on compassionate grounds.”

David Rawson, the United States Ambassador to Rwanda in 1994, had advised his government to deny genocide was happening. “As a responsible Government, you don’t just go around hollering ‘genocide...You say that acts of genocide may have occurred and they need to be investigated,” Rawson said.

Herman Cohen, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa described his government position on Rwanda, as a “wimpish approach.” Cohen said what had happened in Rwanda, and what was still going on “must be called genocide.” (Read The New York Times, June 10, 1994 ‘Officials Told to Avoid Calling Rwanda Killings ‘Genocide’ By DOUGLAS JEHL, published in on
This time the wimpish approach isn’t just from the government but mostly from Erlinder’s supporters who equated Rwanda’s legal suppression of genocide denial as not justifiable and called for action based on the grounds that it was an attack of free speech. 

The Wall Street Journal Europe had this title on its May 31, 2010 story on Erlinder’s arrest: “When free societies tolerate the foolish, the offensive … the unhelpful.” 

Erlinder is described as a lawyer who “has spoken for suspected genocidaires, and has long been a critic of the Rwandan government.” In other words a heroic fighter for democratic freedoms and not a fellow traveler with the ideologies that led to the genocide in the first place. 

The Journal story’s conclusion: “Mr. Erlinder’s views seem foolish, offensive, and ultimately unhelpful to the cause of liberty he claims to champion. But therein lies the test of the free society: Tolerance of the foolish, the offensive, and even of the unhelpful.” Such conclusions can only be imagined from the newspapers of the Weimar Republic before Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 but would be dangerously naïve or even malignly disingenuous following the consequences of Hitler’s rule which was ridiculed at its start and wept over by the end. 

The Journal’s writer attempted to bridge the chasm he was standing over, writing that he was mindful that “not a full generation has passed since Rwanda’s genocide, which transformed every citizen into either a perpetrator or a target. Speech that elsewhere would merely outrage could easily inspire violence in Rwanda.

That, though, is the risk Rwandans must take if they are to safeguard the civil society... The views expressed by Mr. Erlinder and Ms. Ingabire might be a threat to Rwandan stability. But denying their right to express them poses the greater threat.” (See:

How easy it is to make such bets on others’ lives.  Safety, only the assumed safety of the West from the real and existential dangers of genocide, can surely give rise to this false choice. The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages have certainly not adopted such an approach to America’s other face.

It can be extremely sanguine and even cavalier about those dangers. As the saying goes, abstraction is always best in the third or second person, never in the first:  one should do this or you should do that, never should I do it.

How strange! The WSJ has never and would never be so abstract about America’s security risks from violent Islamist groups.  If anything, the op-eds on the War on Terror have been supportive of a safety-first mindset where it comes to the maintenance of American security and preeminence. 

But such standards are not extended to Rwandans.  Their lives must be held on balance between genocide denial – which is nothing less than an extension of genocide ideologies – and free speech.

The paper has been one of the most avid supporters of American wars in the Islamic world to confront the potential dangers their country faces from those places. And yet they would want Rwandans to be so forgetful.

Allowing genocide denial in speech is to democracy what shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater is to free speech.  Fifteen years ago, Rwandans thought that the world was serious about its pledges on genocide.  But today, the reaction to Erlinder’s arrest and prosecution from reputable newspapers and international statesmen proves, damningly, that the world has barely budged from its paralysis in ‘doing right’ that it was in as mass murder that occurred in Rwanda.

That amnesia would make us believe that the country which lost more than a million of its people in a genocide executed in broad daylight just 16 years ago should be more tolerant of the actual existential risk of complete annihilation of its people face. 

Again, such carelessness is in a silent and uncaring world, full of remorseless genocidaires—powered by their determined, well-connected, well-resourced, and well-supported network of would-be killers.

To be continued

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