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In the second of two AIPR blog posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Michelle Eberhard shares insights drawn from a recent University of Minnesota conference on this tragedy’s lessons. Ms. Eberhard is a former AIPR intern who completed in December 2013 a M.A. in Human Rights Studies, with a concentration in genocide, from Columbia University. You can read her previous AIPR blog posts by clicking here.

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rwanda-conference1Commemorations, Voices of Rwanda founder Taylor Krauss explained, represent a “deliberate confrontation with history.” They are an opportunity to experience an event through the eyes of the victim, to enable the voiceless to speak, and to stop the completion of the cycle of genocide by refusing to allow the present to “erase the trace of the past.”

Speaking at a University of Minnesota Institute for Global Studies conference, “Genocide and its Aftermaths: Lessons from Rwanda,” Krauss accompanied his opening address with excerpts from filmed interviews with three Rwandan rescapés who survived the genocide in 1994. Each of these individuals shared stories of fear, the loss of loved ones, and a personal journey of how they, as Krauss put it, “prevent forgetting.”

The importance of remembering was a reoccurring theme at the conference, which was held on April 16, 2014, and included panels on representation and long-term implications of the genocide in Rwanda that left upwards of 800,000 individuals dead in the span of roughly 100 days. The conference also provided an opportunity to consider not only the ramifications of this crisis in the context of contemporary conflicts like Syria and the Central African Republic, but also what the true legacy of Rwanda’s story might be.

Memory as a Political Tool

Several speakers, including Eric Schwartz and David Lippmann, Deans of the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the University of Minnesota Law School, respectively, focused on the political context of the genocide in Rwanda.

While Schwartz reasoned that “examining what we didn’t do in the past can only enhance what we do in the future,” Wippman argued that “those who remember history are condemned to mess it up.” Wippman supplemented his quip with examples of how the legacies of Vietnam and Somalia, as well as the progression from the Weinberger and Powell Doctrines to Presidential Decision Directive 25, made American action in Rwanda in 1994 conceptually unrealistic.

Wippman also shared his personal experience in the National Security Council, when he was tasked with completing research for then-President Bill Clinton, who had read a piece by Philip Gourevitch on Rwanda and jotted “is this true?” in its margins.

Though somewhat absurd now given the enormous amount of documentation that exists on the Rwandan genocide, how often do questions of this skeptical nature nonetheless continue to hamper efforts to prioritize and appropriately respond to similar crises twenty years later?

Weighing the Impact of Humanitarian and Human Rights Organizations

Another perspective that added an important dimension to the conference’s scope came from Executive Director of The Center for Victims of Torture, Curt Goering, who spoke of his experience as a staff member at Amnesty International during the Rwandan genocide. Goering expertly synthesized the transformation his organization was faced with at the time, as patterns of human rights violations shifted towards an increase in extrajudicial and mass killings, and away from large numbers of prisoners of conscience. He also noted new challenges such as the difficulty of operating in insecure environments and addressing violations committed by individuals who actually carry out peacekeeping missions.

From an operational view, Goering emphasized that Amnesty was completely underprepared to handle a crisis like the genocide. With deteriorating situations, policy restraints, and a dearth of crisis researchers due to “insufficient flexibility to shift around resources,” organizations like Amnesty were often reduced to monitoring a crisis and providing recommendations. As such, Goering concluded, the impact of humanitarian organizations was simply “not much.” But, he also cautioned against believing that the existence of appropriate mandates and policies would have “made the difference” in Rwanda.

What Justice, Whose Memory, and How?

rwanda3Of course, the task of remembering what transpired in Rwanda must certainly extend beyond a discussion of consequences for political and humanitarian actors and institutions. Indeed, issues of post-genocide justice and memory are also imperative in the aftermath of atrocity.

Speaking in his capacity as both the current Director of the University of North Dakota Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies, and as a former Legal Officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Gregory Gordon explained the impact that the ICTR has had on rebuilding Rwandan society. Noting at the outset that “it’s not a zero-sum game” and that all components matter, Gordon countered several common arguments against the work of the ICTR by highlighting what it has contributed to Rwanda’s healing process and international justice more broadly, including the precedents the Tribunal has set on genocide, hate speech, and rape and sexual violence as a component of genocide.

Yet, as those familiar with the Rwandan genocide know, a majority of justice initiatives have occurred at the local level through the implementation of gacaca courts. Drawing heavily on their recently completed fieldwork in Rwanda, Distinguished McKnight Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota Chris Uggen, and University of Minnesota Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology Hollie Nyseth Brehm, explained the parallels between gacaca and restorative justice.

In particular, Uggen and Nyseth Brehm identified a handful of “dualisms” in gacaca: its formal yet informal nature; the involvement of the Rwandan government, despite the courts’ operation within the local community; the mixture of traditional procedures with contemporary cases it is meant to adjudicate; as well as its combination of punitive and restorative punishments. The pair also emphasized that much more time must pass before definitive conclusions on the impact of gacaca and other justice measures in Rwanda can be fully drawn.

The most pressing matter, of course, is whether the justice prescribed has been an appropriate antidote to the poison of the genocide’s aftermath. For Dan Wildeson, Professor of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, evaluating this question necessitates a consideration of the twin issues of birth and perspective.

Simply put, while children inherit their DNA from their family, Wildeson explained, they do not also inherit their culture, stories, or family legacy from some biological origin. Perhaps, then, we need a “tectonic shift,” he reasoned – a shift in the narrative of the world we pass on to our children. This shift is naturally tied to the second issue, as contesting any narrative demands that one consider the world from another’s point of view.

Similarly, the various manners in which Rwandans choose to remember what happened during the genocide were discussed. Nicole Fox, a Ph.D. Candidate in Sociology at Brandeis University, noted that while memorials were initially viewed as an opportunity to bury the dead that lay scattered throughout the streets of the country, these spaces eventually transformed into places for survivors to grieve, thus providing a dual purpose at both the macro and micro levels.

However, the challenges for memorials are real, as it is their creators who decide what stories each space will tell – sometimes at the detriment of marginalizing particular victim groups, like those in Rwanda who experienced gender-based violence. The implication of this selectivity is that such spaces inevitably become “organizers of memory and organizers of trauma,” which in turn, have the dichotomous opportunity to either empower or stratify communities.

What Legacy?

rwanda4Repeated throughout the conference were references to Rwanda’s “unbelievable” transformation in the past twenty years, particularly in terms of economic growth. But should we truly be so astonished by Rwanda’s progress? Is Rwanda not proof of what can be done when the world responds to a problem by identifying and implementing a focused solution? If we were to be astonished by anything in the past twenty years, then, it would seem more appropriate that we become struck by the moments of opportunity we have neglected to undertake elsewhere, knowing the impact that such commitment is capable of producing.

The legacy of Rwanda, then, must not simply be the chance it provides to reexamine our strategies for handling conflict. Though the world’s response (or lack thereof) in 1994 will forever remain one of the darkest moments of modern history, Rwanda today is an example of the alternative to cynicism, to apathy, to a foregone conclusion that there is no way to influence the outcome of a problem not uniquely our own.

As Fox stated in reference to the power of memorials, “the evidence shapes the stories.” Perhaps now the evidence of Rwanda can be the hope its transformation provides for current and future decisions regarding imminent atrocity situations. Perhaps now we can “prevent forgetting” our own power to create a world different from the one in which we live today.

If we could remember that capability, just imagine the legacy for which we might someday be remembered.

“Genocide and its Aftermath: Lessons from Rwanda” was co-sponsored by several departments, boards, and associations at the University of Minnesota, including the Center for Victims of Torture, the Advocates for Human Rights, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, St. Cloud State’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, World Without Genocide, Global Solutions Minnesota, and the Minnesota International Center. A list of all conference speakers is available here. Rwanda photo credits: Adam Jones, Ph.D.

This month, we’re featuring a post by university student Sam Gillespie, a junior at Dickinson College majoring in International Studies and French. Currently studying abroad in Cameroon, Mr. Gillespie was introduced to concepts related to genocide and mass atrocity prevention last summer while working at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Institute with Colonel Dwight Raymond, an alumnus of our Raphael Lemkin Seminar. Gillespie told AIPR that taking classes on humanitarian issues and learning on the ground in Cameroon has heightened his passion for human rights and mass atrocity prevention, and that after college he plans to return to Africa to work in the development sector.

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cc2“Would you mind hurrying up? We have somewhere to be,” my professor said to the Cameroonian National Gendarmerie officer circling our bus. He was exasperated. The official was closely examining all of our passports, the bus’ registration papers, and my professor’s itinerary for our trip.

“I’m doing my job! Would you mind letting me do it? If you didn’t interrupt me, I’d probably be done by now!” barked the officer, his words slurred by anger, and likely alcohol. From our seats in the bus, we could see his bloodshot eyes and uneven footing, plus empty beer cans on the ground.

After his inspection of the bus, the unsteady gendarmerie claimed “discrepancies” existed with our registration papers and unspecified “problems” with our first aid kit. He also demanded a fee. Asked if we’d get a receipt for our payment, the man said he was out of paper. At this, my professor laughed and handed him a notarized letter from his friend who holds a high position in government. Upon reading it, the officer returned all our paperwork and let our bus drive away without paying our fine. This was my first day in Cameroon and my introduction to endemic corruption.

Standing at the wrong place to hail a taxi, touching a mural that shouldn’t be touched, or taking pictures in a public place are all examples of “violations” I’ve since committed in Cameroon. Through these experiences, I’ve learned how corruption is not just merely inconvenient and sometimes costly, but how it can handicap a nation’s ability to develop economically, politically and socially.

Across Africa, the roots of corruption have survived countless regime changes and international aid missions. Year after year, corruption is passed on to the next generation. In essence, this culture of corruption has kept many post-colonial states trapped in a vortex of hardship and struggle. The impact of corruption can even be deadly. For the last several decades, there are numerous examples where political and economic corruption has lead to mass atrocities. Perhaps the most stunning example came in the early 1990s in Rwanda where a combination of corruption, political tensions and economic failure, among other factors, precipitated the most horrific genocide of the modern era.

Although the Rwandan genocide of 1994 is usually attributed to ethnic tensions, political and economic mismanagement contributed to the supremacy of the Hutu elite. It was the Hutu elite who ultimately began and encouraged a killing campaign against 800,000 Tutsis. Roots of the violence can be traced to the 1980s when the price of Rwanda’s main export (coffee), fell 50% as a result of an international coffee crisis. The plummeting coffee prices impacted Rwandan GDP and devalued the country’s currency 40 percent. The IMF provided an aid package, but instead of it going towards a recovery plan, the funds were largely disbursed throughout the President Habyarimana’s corrupt administration, leaving the rest of the country to fend for itself.

Beyond the high walls of Habyarimana’s presidential palace, the country declined rapidly. With 85% of the population falling below the poverty line and farmland devaluing greatly, the country fell further and further into debt. Amid the economic deterioration and rising political corruption Tutsi rebel groups formed in Uganda (mainly the Rwandan Patriotic Front) and ignited a violent civil war. After a pair of missiles shot down Habyarimana’s plane after a peace accord had been signed with the RPF in April 1994, the Hutu government began the massacres. Over the next four months, Hutu extremist militias exterminated 11 percent of the country’s population and left the rest of the world in shock.

c4The events of the Rwandan genocide were undoubtedly a culmination of many factors, amongst them ethnic tensions unique to the Rwandan example. But at its core, corrupt and irresponsible political behavior precipitated the economic failure that led, ultimately, to genocide. Thus one of the many lessons we can draw from the genocide in Rwanda is this: countries with endemic corruption are at a greater risk of mass atrocity compared to societies with stable and highly accountable state institutions.

While Cameroon has its own legacy of mass atrocities and remains at risk for more, I have hope for the country I currently call home. Despite having the same president for 30 years, I believe the political process is becoming more transparent in step with economic growth and social progress. My time in Cameroon will end in June 2014, but I’m hopeful that when I next visit, the gendarmerie officer who examines my passport will not be looking for a simple kickback, but performing his duties in the service of the Cameroonian people and stability of the state.

 

Sources:

Moise Jean, “The Rwandan Genocide: The True Motivations for Mass Killings,” Emory Endeavors in World History, Volume I: March 2007.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Penguin Books, London 2005.

Photo credit:

Christopher Brokus

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