One of the greatest lessons to be drawn from both the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi and the Jewish Holocaust is that one cannot rely on the international community for protection.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who was recently in the country for the 20th commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, said for this reason, all states should build internal mechanisms to have an impartial national army.
In an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Collins Mwai, the Jewish religious leader said the lack of intervention to stop Adolf Hitler or the Interahamwe militia led to a conclusion that they could exterminate their victims and not be stopped by the world.
“There was no international intervention as it got progressively worse and they continually pushed the boundary of discrimination testing to see if the world will react,” he said. Excerpts;-
What are the most outstanding similarities between the Genocide against the Tutsi and the Jewish Holocaust and what lessons can be drawn from them?
There are several similarities between the two atrocities. The first and most prevalent one is the indifference of the world as the two peoples were being killed. Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933; by 1935 he was already hostile.
There was no international intervention as it got progressively worse and he continually pushed the boundary of discrimination testing to see if the world would react.
He concluded that he can exterminate the Jews with impunity, which he planned and executed. He murdered one of every three Jews on the planet in a space of four years. He would have murdered them all had he not been stopped.
Rwanda has such a tragic similarity, despite Gen. Romeo Dallaire (formerly of UN) telling the United Nations that he had discovered a stock pile of weapons and a genocide was being planned, he was prevented for intervening by the United Nations itself.
The UN was built to prevent and stop this kind of atrocities, there is a phenomenal culpability on how it refused to allow its forces that was on ground to prevent and stop the genocide.
The lesson that has been learnt by both the Jewish people and Rwandans is that they cannot rely on international help to protect them. One of the reasons I am a great admirer of the Rwandan president is that he not only stopped the Genocide, but he also has not wavered from the conclusion that only the people of Rwanda themselves can protect themselves.
Unfortunately, that is the truth; both countries have built a strong army to protect themselves. Both leaders have at times been under criticism for doing all they can to protect their people.
But I think the greatest similarity of the two genocides is the people’s commitment to life after the Genocide. The Jewish people built Israel after the genocide and so did the Rwandan people.
What lessons can be drawn from both atrocities?
The one lesson we can draw from this is the importance of self reliance, self sufficiency and unity of the people. There are people who would be content in running a country on aid, but that is not the Rwandan people; they want independence and self reliance making them a model for other African nations.
The only thing I regret about it is that their example is not known by enough people. We have to get the Rwandan message out there. It is part of the reason why I brought a delegation with me. Some know about the Genocide but not the economic miracle and integration that has taken place over a short span which can set a great example to the people of Africa.
Also, we should learn that the words ‘never again’ are empty as there have been more genocides since the holocaust. The only way to say ‘never again’ is to have a defensive moral army that upholds and defends freedom and ultimately safeguards life.
The youth have been tipped as ones to take the country to the next level; do you think they are up to it?
They have already showed that they are up to it. Rwanda is such a young country, the youth are dominant in most sectors, they have proven that they are up to it by the fact that they are actually doing it.
They are an inspiration to the world in that they are not divided on ethnic margins and have a lot of unity.
We still have denial of both atrocities, what do you make of it?
The world has a short memory; we already have people who are denying the holocaust and the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Why do people deny genocide or the holocaust? When you can deny the fact that they were at the brink of extermination, you are denying them justice. You are saying that they are not victims and that they did not suffer.
To deny someone’s suffering especially when it was at the levels of brutality as the two were, it is to deny their humanity. You are basically saying that you will not acknowledge their suffering or pay heed to their agony.
The denial of a people’s genocide is a denial of their humanity. The Jewish community has dealt with genocide denial for decades; the former president of Iran would stand in front of the United Nations and deny that the holocaust never happened. Even the current one has never admitted the occurrence of genocide; he would only go as far as saying bad things happened to the Jews.
For Israel and the Jewish people, if you can deny the holocaust, then you can deny the reason why they have to protect themselves, same case for Rwanda. Rwanda has so far built a strong army after the genocide.
What you need to do is to ensure that the remembrance is not only among the people of Rwanda, every human being has an obligation to be involved in genocide memory. It would be good if it is taught in schools, just as other genocides.
If we can say that it never happened, they we are saying the reason Rwanda has an army is because they want to impose their rule on other people, which is equal to delegitimising the government and its institutions.
Years after the genocide in Rwanda, you would expect that the world has learnt from it and there would be fewer atrocities but we still have such atrocities going on, how do you think we can use Rwanda’s lesson for the rest of the world?
It should come down to being incorporated in the school’s curricula. Beyond that, there is no substitute for seeing the actual memorial sites. Genocide memorials should be conserved to have a lifelong impact on the people.
The Jewish bring tens of thousands of people from all over the world so that they can see. This is one way to influence the influencers.
Let’s also not forget the important role the media can play, it is not something that is widely known by the world well enough. The media can play a role to change that.
Rwanda has borrowed some tips from the Jewish people in dealing with the orphan problem, do you think it has been well dealt with?
The Jewish people had the same problem, with a lot of orphans, they discovered the youth villages model. The late Anne Heyman (founder of Agahozo-Shalom Village) being a child of survivors studied the model and brought it to Rwanda.
I have been to the village twice and on both occasions it has been one of the most emotional moments of my life. They are taught forgiveness and reconciliation and you can see how much it has changed them, they are free of bitterness and are keen on developing their lives to add positively to society. Rwanda is dealing well with the orphan problem.
What is your take on the spat between the government of France and Rwanda regarding France denial of a dishonourable role in the genocide?
I am greatly disappointed in France and how they have chosen to deal with their culpability. France hopefully like any nation wants to be moral and just. They should admit that they made a terrible mistake; acknowledgment.
They then have to stop justifying it and denying it. Thirdly, they have to behave differently, what I would like to see is France making a commitment to the people of Rwanda to do better. That would make them honourable.
Take an example from the government of Germany, after participating in one of the greatest crimes against humanity in the world, they completely owned up and did not justify it.
Instead they are only engaging in unacceptable dispute with the Rwandan government because they are not prepared to accept that they played a dishonorable role in the Genocide.
I salute the president and the people of Rwanda for being resolute and not giving in when it comes to history. You would suppose that there would be pressure to let it pass as France is a richer country, but that would be an insult to the memory of the victims.
What would you recommend as way forward for Rwanda after the 20th commemoration?
Where there is no vision people perish, as a country you have to be ambitious and have a vision and think big. Countries have to set monumental goals before them.
Why should Rwanda not keep up with its goals like world class educational facilities and a robust economy? Rwanda may not have much in terms of natural resources but like the Jewish people, there is much in terms of human resources.
You have to however be keen to ensure that your ambitions never contradict your values. Already, Rwanda’s ambitions are in line with it’s values such as respecting and promoting rights of women, ensuring educating and highlighting the importance of reconciliation in the community, among others.
I am a believer in having a collection of values and principles in which you try never to divert. If a country or donor wants to give aid in an effort to create dependency, Rwanda has no business dealing with them as self-sufficiency is among Rwanda’s priority.
What do you think of UN’s capacity to intervene and resolve conflicts?
The UN when it comes to protecting citizens, it is very embarrassing. They can do a fine job when it comes to dealing with refugees, international aid, but when it comes to protecting innocent people, they are embarrassing.
It is not just that they have been incompetent; it has no moral resolve. Syria is a fine example; children are being gassed and they have not done a thing. What they are good at is condemning countries like Israel.
It is time to look at what they are good at and what they cannot be depended on to do. They are good at aid, good at highlighting international emergencies, but when it comes to conflict, they are rarely capable of finding one party guilty. They are known for statements like both parties should come together and negotiate.