Speech by Dutch minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation at the 20th Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, it began on the sixth of April 1994 with an outburst of atrocities. In the months that followed the world realised that it was witnessing genocide. The world did nothing to stop it.
Lilianne Ploumen
Lilianne Ploumen

Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, 

It began on the sixth of April 1994 with an outburst of atrocities. In the months that followed the world realised that it was witnessing genocide. The world did nothing to stop it.

The facts are there for all to see. The genocide was meticulously prepared by the Hutu extremists around the then president Habyarimana. Young thugs received military training and radical schooling in the youth movement Interahamwe. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcast racist propaganda against the Tutsi, calling them inyenzi, or cockroaches, in a deliberate attempt to dehumanise them, to render them dispensable. Thousands and thousands of machetes were secretly imported and distributed. Secret lists were made of Tutsi and their sympathisers. Houses were marked H or T. Rehearsals were held in remote villages in the Bugesera district, where thousands of people were slaughtered during the night, almost unnoticed. 

What happened in Rwanda between April and July 1994 was done with the intent to destroy another ethnic group. However you look at it – from a legal or moral standpoint – the conclusion must be the same. These events constituted genocide. 

The international community failed to stop the killing. It was too busy meeting and discussing the legal intricacies of military intervention. By May 1994, one month into the genocide, there could no longer be any doubt about the scale and viciousness of the mass slaughter. Western leaders were fully aware of the horror. Calls came for an intervention. On 6 May 1994, the UN Security Council called for UNAMIR, the handful of UN soldiers left in Kigali, to be expanded to 5,500 troops to stop the genocide. 

Not one country heeded the call from the Security Council. As a result, the whole world shares responsibility for the tragedy. My own country is no exception.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Last year I visited the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali. It is a peaceful place in a dynamic, bustling city. A quiet place, where you can reflect as you look at the photographs of those who were killed, as you watch the videos of survivors talking about their ordeal.

While I was looking at the testimonials on display, I realised that all the people standing around me at that moment were part of the events commemorated there. Every one of them, from the doorman to the museum guide, had in one way or another been a victim of these atrocities themselves. 

It was an important day in my life. It is important to stop and think about what happened in 1994. It’s important for us to meet here today and remember those who were so savagely killed. It’s important to pause and reflect on what man is capable of. Because the violence in Rwanda wasn’t unprecedented. Such horrors have occurred throughout history and all over the world. There is a dark trait in humanity that, under the right circumstances – or rather, the wrong circumstances – we all share.

But our shared humanity also tells us that we made the wrong choices. It makes us say out loud that we deeply regret those choices. That we deeply regret the huge loss of life, the immense trauma felt by Rwandan society, and the pain and sorrow that the survivors of the genocide still feel today. And it makes us try hard not to make the wrong choices again. Rwanda’s recent history was certainly uppermost in people’s minds when it was decided to intervene in, say, South Sudan or the Central African Republic. 

When, after months of bloodshed, Rwanda began to emerge from the abyss of genocide, the outlook was bleak. Nearly a million Rwandans had been slaughtered in only three months. A few million were living in camps in Zaire, now Congo, and Tanzania, near the Rwandan borders, still under the control of Hutu extremists. While UN agencies and NGOs were feeding and sheltering them, they were still actively threatening Rwanda. 

Debate within the international community about the future of Rwanda was dominated by fears that the country would tumble back into violence again. What future was there? The odds were stacked high against Rwanda. What had happened could not be undone. Nor could it be forgotten. And it seemed inconceivable that the victims and the perpetrators would ever be able to live with one other again.

Yet that is exactly what the new Rwandan leaders set out to achieve. Despite the devastation, despite the threats and despite the suspicions about the government’s intentions, Rwanda chose to rebuild the country and to tackle the deep divisions of the genocide. 

Rwanda rebuilt its judicial system, almost from scratch. It resolved to bring the suspects of the genocide to justice. This was no easy task, given that in 1996 over 100,000 suspects were still in jail. And despite the resentment and pain, Rwanda took the bold step to abolish capital punishment. 

And despite the widespread thirst for revenge, Rwanda reinstalled the tradition of gacaca, a community justice system involving mediation, confession and acts of contrition. A system in which the victims – in this case the survivors – accept the truth as a basis for living together again. This process was carried out all over the country, in hundreds of villages. 

Reconciliation may not be the right word for what is going on in Rwanda. But even the decision that survivors and killers must live together takes courage. I cannot begin to imagine how painful this process must have been – and still is. But the Rwandans took that step. They found a way to deal with the past. They found a way to make their memories and lives bearable again. Where did they find the strength? I believe they must have come to a profound understanding that there simply was no other way.

Today, twenty years on, a new generation of Rwandans has grown up in peace and security. For them, a new chapter is being written with the most recent campaign called NdiUmunyarwanda, or ‘I am Rwandan’. It is a fresh attempt to encourage people to talk about what happened and help them understand the complex social impact of the genocide. 

Twenty years after the massacre, Kigali is now one of the safest and cleanest cities in Africa. Today, Rwanda has a population of around 12 million, double what it was shortly after the genocide. Education, health care, literacy and life expectancy have all improved tremendously.

I want to pay tribute to the people of Rwanda for what they have achieved in the last twenty years. Against all the odds, they have managed to give themselves a future once again.

So let me end by looking at this future and voicing my hopes for the Rwandan people. 

I feel that the biggest challenge is this: Rwandans will have to rediscover confidence in themselves and in one another. The confidence that they can stand on their own two feet, not only as a society but also as individuals. Free from fear, at peace with their neighbors and with respect for the common human values we all share.

The Netherlands wants to show its friendship by assisting in that process. We want to contribute to those positive developments. For instance by helping to rebuild the judicial system, as we have been doing over the past years.And by helping Rwanda to take the next steps towards a free society. I want to paraphrase ambassador Karabaranga, who was quoted this morning in a Dutch newspaper. He said: ‘In the end Rwanda wants to move away from dependency and create equal partnerships with friendly countries.’ 

As a true friend the Netherlands wants to travel alongside Rwanda on its journey to a brighter future, getting to know one another better and learning from each other along the way. We want to accompany the Rwandans on their quest for greater trust and confidence. It is a challenge. But Rwanda has met bigger ones in the recent past. 

Ambassador, thank you for hosting the Kwibuka commemorations in the Netherlands. We are honoured that you are here, and that Rwanda has chosen us as a partner for these events under the Kwibuka Flame. The flame that symbolises remembrance, as well as the resilience and the courage of Rwandans over the past twenty years.

Thank you.

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