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.

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