The Lantos Prize: There’s no controversy; just cowardice


By Wandia Njoya in U.S. Affairs and African Affairs

Katrina Lantos Swett issued a rude response to the protests against the award of her human rights prize to Paul Rusesabagina, the hero created by a Hollywood movie.

One response essentially says “If you did not say anything before, you should shut up now.” According to Swett, those protesting her pick of Rusesabagina are not credible because they did not say anything when the movie Hotel Rwanda was released, or when Rusesabagina was awarded a presidential medal by George Bush.

However, the fact that she did not hear any protests does not mean they didn’t exist. And there is such a thing as research to confirm that there were no protests. But research? On Africans? Why bother? Just like their skin, the surface tells it all.

Besides, Swett didn’t hear anything probably because the release of Hotel Rwanda marked the first time a larger American public heard about the genocide. Clinton had done a mighty good job of preventing the UN from declaring the slaughter genocide.

Even if there were no protests then, that does not invalidate the protests now. The voices of victims are validated not by the length of time it takes for them to speak out, but by the victims’ experience and the victims’ humanity. That is why the world recognized the Armenian genocide and the Herero genocide a century later. And that’s why priests are convicted for sexual abuse of children who speak out as adults.

The other of Swett’s arguments is almost hilarious: it’s Kagame. She doesn’t mention Kagame, but really, that’s who she’s referring to when she says that “the very freedom to take part in these protests is something that wouldn’t be allowed in Rwanda.”

Swett has the arrogance to essentially tell the victims that they are talking only because America, unlike Kagame, has given Rwandans the freedom to do so, (or because she has been gracious enough to make “particular efforts” to listen to them). For her, Africans can never have an agenda independent of their governments: they are either sycophants to dress down or heroic opponents to award prizes.

And so for Swett, the victims’ real issue with Rusesabagina is that he has been “outspoken in defense of democracy in Rwanda.” Please. She, of all people, should know that a victim who sees her family slaughtered in the most heinous of ways, who is brutally raped, is preoccupied with the honor of her people’s memory, not with defending a government.

And Swett should know that, since Israel and the West have always viciously attacked anyone who dares make reference to the Holocaust when criticizing Israel’s current occupation of the West Bank. If the horror of the Holocaust is a separate issue from Israel’s political situation today, so should the Tutsi genocide be in relation to the Kagame government.

Not only does Swett dismiss the experiences of the victims and survivors of the genocide against Tutsis; she turns the tables around and tries to portray the Lantos foundation as the victim. That is how she blows up a simple petition into “attacks…consistent with a disturbing pattern of censorship, intimidation and even violence.” Her disregard for the survivors’ experiences affirms the racist ideology that Africans are always perpetrators – never victims – of violence.

Therefore, through this attempt to portray the Lantos foundation as a victim of violence, she reminds one of Malcolm X’s words that “The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal… If you aren’t careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

The Lantos prize is very much like the film Hotel Rwanda. For both, the main preoccupation is not the genocide, or Rusesabagina for that matter. It is America’s disbelief that the genocide was ended by Africans and not by America heroically coming to the rescue of some small insignificant country.

If Swett has a score to settle with Kagame, she should take it up with him and leave the memory of Tutsi genocide victims out of it. A moneyed American foundation should be not be engaged in a controversy – manufactured or not –  with survivors of the most horrific act that is perpetrated against human beings. Such engagement is not a defense of democracy; it is the cowardly act of a bully targeting those who are vulnerable cannot hit back with equal force.



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