This week marks an important moment of remembrance and reminder, of bearing witness and public warning. For it marks the 22nd anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide against Tutsi – an unspeakable atrocity where one million Rwandans were murdered in a three-month genocidal onslaught that began April 7, 1994. Indeed, what makes the Rwandan Genocide so unspeakable was not only the horror of the genocide itself, but the fact that it was preventable. No one can say that we did not know – we knew, but we did not act.
Eight years ago, the Canadian Parliament – by a unanimous motion – designated April 7th as a National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide. We are invited to remember not only the horrors of genocide, but as the Canadian Parliamentary motion called for, to reflect and act upon its lessons. For while the world vowed “Never Again” after the unprecedented horrors of the Holocaust, “Never Again” has happened again and again, symbolized by the international community as bystander in Rwanda.
As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, lamented on the 10thanniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, “Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?”
The answer is that the international community will only prevent the killing fields of the future by heeding the lessons from past tragedies. What, then, are these lessons, and, what is it that we can do?
The first lesson of the Rwandan Genocide against Tutsi – not unlike the Holocaust – is that these genocides occurred not simply because of the machinery of death, but also because of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide. Indeed, as the case law of the Rwandan Genocide demonstrates, these acts of genocide were preceded by – and anchored in – an orchestrated dehumanization and demonization of the minority Tutsi population in Rwanda. This included invoking epidemiological metaphors of Tutsis as “inyenzi” – “cockroaches” – as prologue to and justification for their extermination.
On this 80th anniversary year of the Nuremberg Race Laws the international community must bear in mind – as the Supreme Court of Canada also affirmed in the Léon Mugesera case – that incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself. Taking action to prevent it, as the Genocide Convention mandates us to do, is not a policy option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest order. Indeed, this is what the Responsibility to Prevent – the centerpiece of the Responsibility to Protect – is all about.
The second lesson, dramatized by the Rwandan Genocide, is the danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction – hence the Responsibility to Act and Protect. Simply put, while the United Nations Security Council and the international community dithered and delayed, Rwandans were dying.
Accordingly, as we remember Rwanda, we must recommit ourselves to prevent and protect the victims of mass atrocities in our time. Indeed, while urgent protective action was so needed in Syria, appeals for help these past five years fell on the deaf ears of the international community, a bystander once again. We must break this cycle of indifference and inaction if we are truly to learn the requisite lesson.
The third lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity – that repeatedly emboldens those intent on committing mass atrocities – and the corresponding responsibility, therefore, to bring these war criminals to justice. Indeed, if the last century –symbolized by the Holocaust and the genocide in Rwanda – was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice. Just as there must be no sanctuary for hate, no refuge for bigotry so there must be no base or sanctuary for the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity.
And that is why as minister of justice, I initiated the first-ever prosecution under theWar Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity Act of Rwandan War Criminal DésiréMunyaneza, who was convicted of such crimes by Canadian courts. Yet the culture of impunity continues to abound. Consider Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir who continues to evade justice and accountability for his role in the Darfurian genocide; or the impunity of the Syrian leadership for its ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria, aided and abetted by its Russian and Chinese enablers who vetoed UN Security Council resolutions to refer Syrian criminality to the International Criminal Court.
The fourth lesson is the persistent danger of violence against women during mass atrocities, of rape in particular, as a weapon of war. Indeed, evidence from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda dramatizes the systematic use of sexual assault during the genocide as a means of continued degradation, humiliation, and torture, while rape in Syria emerged not just as a consequence of atrocity, but as an instrument for pursuing it.
The fifth lesson is the danger of assaults on the most vulnerable in society. Simply put, the Rwandan Genocide occurred not only because of the vulnerability of the powerless, but also because of the powerlessness of the vulnerable, who are the first targets of oppression and violence. Regrettably, this pattern has also found expression in Syria, with its targeting and torturing of children, its 12.5 million people displaced, and the dramatic refugee plight of close to five million refugees.
The sixth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial – the denial of the Rwandan Genocide– an assault on memory and truth, not unlike the case of Holocaust denial. In its most obscene form, it will actually accuse the victim of fabrication and falsification of the crimes. Remembrance of the Rwandan Genocide – is itself a repudiation of such denial– which becomes more prevalent with the passage of time.
The seventh lesson is the importance of remembering the heroic rescuers, who remind us of the range of human possibility, those who stood up to confront evil, including our own General Roméo Dallaire.
May the Rwandan Genocide be an occasion not only for remembrance, but to learn the lessons of the crime whose name we should even shudder to mention –genocide.
From The National Post
Irwin Cotler is professor of law (emeritus) at McGill University, former minister of justice, attorney general of Canada, and member of Parliament. He introduced the unanimous motion for Canada’s National Day of Reflection on the Prevention of Genocide.