Denying genocide: how the west failed Rwanda (again)

Western states and even civil society share responsibility for the spread of a false account of what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Today, the truth needs wholesale support.

Andrew Wallis
28 September 2015

Europe's crisis over refugees and migrants is raising much talk about the failure of European nations to fulfill their obligations, moral and legal, to the United Nations' refugee convention, agreed in 1951. The problem is symptomatic of a more general issue: the way the west lectures the developing world on human rights and democracy while continuing to turn its back on its own responsibilities. Another area where Europe, and the wider west, is negligent is in relation to the UN genocide convention, agreed in 1948, whose signatories agree to prevent and punish the crime. The failure here is compounded by inaction over genocide-denial, a phenomenon which has spread quietly but steadily in recent years. The long aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda is an alarming case in point.

France in particular has continued to be a safe haven. Dozens of genocidaire live and work there today with impunity from prosecution, disseminating lies about the 1994 genocide and in some cases providing financial and organisational help to the Hutu extremist movement, the Rally for the Return of Democracy to Rwanda (RDR, and its hard core the FDLR), based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). What makes this disregard for justice even more galling for survivors is that in the only trial France has managed to conduct over these twenty-one years - that of intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa in March 2014 - its judges noted the historical reality of the genocide, and dismissed the defendant’s well-rehearsed pro-RDR line. 

In that case, the court judgment assessed Simbikangwa's argument as follows: "[A] chaotic, spontaneous, uncontrolled, non concerted and unorganized popular movement in no means tallies with the observations made by historians, visual witnesses, journalists, survivors as well as diplomats, who all on the contrary reported effective preparation and organization of the massacres that were perpetrated for political and racial motives. That argument of a generalized chaos is also incompatible with the scale of killings that were committed and their spread all over the country." 

Equally, "The Assize Court of Paris is convinced that the crime of genocide as defined by article 211-1 of the penal code namely the existence of voluntary attempts on life or serious attempts on the physical and psychological integrity, in the execution of a concerted plan, tending to total or partial destruction of the Tutsi ethnic group was indeed committed in Rwanda between April and July 1994."

It was an unequivocal and decisive verdict on the reality of the genocide against the Tutsi. Nonetheless, France continues to play politics with justice. In doing so it harms not just its own bruised reputation for equality and fairness before the law, but also facilitates genocide denial and revision by allowing those who should be facing justice to continue their campaigns of disinformation.

The decision by the Paris prosecutor in August 2015 to ask for the case against a priest wanted for genocide and rape to be dropped is another victory for impunity and denial. Father Wenceslas Munyeshyaka had his case returned to France in February 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) after Paris specifically agreed to try him. The latest decision of the prosecutor, who remarkably still stated that the actions of the priest in the genocide had raised "very many questions", reflects the fact that senior members of the French establishment are still in denial about their own actions in support of the genocidaire.

A further light on French political and judicial attitudes to the genocide is given by the continued residence in Paris, openly and without sanction, of Agathe Habyarimana, widow of Rwanda's former president Juvénal Habyarimana. Yet a report in January 2007 by the independent French refugee commission (OFPRA) alleged that she was at the "heart of the genocide". France has emphasised its strong stand against denial of the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians in 1915. It urgently needs to overturn its own denial of justice to Rwandan survivors, and its indulgence of those in France who both participated in the killing in 1994 and now lead campaigns to revise the truth.

Also troubling is the continued support given by senior officials at the Vatican to priests who are accused of rape, mass murder, extermination and crimes against humanity in 1994. Such priests often are subject to Interpol "red notices", yet they continue to deny their actions and those of the extremist Hutu they supported even as they perform mass and escape any clerical-discipline procedures. 

A year after the genocide, Father Wenceslas was one of twenty-nine priests who wrote an open letter to Pope John Paul II accusing the Tutsi of being the cause of their own misfortunes, including "provocation and the harassment of the Rwandan people by the [Rwandan Popular Front]." This was an early example of the RDR's "double genocide" strategy, which accuses both sides for being responsible for "ethnic troubles." Also in 1995, the papal nuncio Monsignor Nguyen Van Tot co-signed a six-page letter to the new Rwandan justice minister referring to "certain unfortunate events" but omitting any reference to "genocide".

Pope Francis, on the final day of his visit to the United States, took time to meet with survivors and victims of clerical abuse. He said he was "overwhelmed with shame" and vowed that those responsible would be brought to justice. The Pope expressed his solidarity over their suffering, as well as his own pain and shame especially in the case of injury caused them by clergy or church workers. In that light, it is surely time for him to reach out to victims of crimes such as rape and murder committed by Catholic clergy during the genocide in Rwanda, and to offer the same pledge. Hiding wanted priests within the Vatican, as is presently the case, cannot be allowed to continue.

When whistleblowers within the institution have come forward to challenge the role of the Catholic church, they have been coldly rejected. Father Jean Ndorimana wrote three books exposing the Vatican’s complicity before, during and after the genocide; he received numerous threats from Rome as a result, and has now been excommunicated. It would seem some on the political right within the church have learned little from its role assisting Nazis to escape after the second world war and supporting them in exile. Protection of the institution is put before "the body of Christ" it exists to serve.

The denialist campaign

Richard McCall, then head of USAID, noted as early as 1996 that "the seeds for this genocide were planted decades ago. The roots remain firmly embedded in an ideology that continues to be the principle guiding the (interim 1994) ex-government and the RDR." The warning was all too often ignored in the years that followed.

The RDR’s denial campaign, cultivating human-rights groups and media in particular, has been extensive and cloaked in various guises (see "Denying genocide: the Rwanda plan", 21 September 2015). These include efforts to divert the debate from the genocide itself and onto specific events or people, and to usurp important current political debate for their own purpose. For several years, the responsibility for the plane crash that killed Juvénal Habyarimana in April 1994 was the chosen smokescreen - as if the 800,000 deaths that followed had not occurred.

The denial lobby also seized on reports by the French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière (2006) and his Spanish counterpart Fernando Andreu Morelles (2008): both were propagandistic and soon discredited, yet are still cited to impress ill-informed media or disinterested public opinion. When the French judge Marc Trévidic showed in 2012 that Hutu extremists were most likely to be responsible for the plane crash, the deniers then switched the debate to problems in the DRC, notably the militia group M-23 (which they alleged Rwanda's government was supporting).

On this issue western media, human-rights groups and governments were swift to respond; in Britain, the outcome included a parliamentary inquiry and eventual withholding of aid to Rwanda. This crisis was solved when Rwanda supported a campaign against M-23 by Monusco (the usually ineffective UN force), though this left in place the most dangerous threat in the DRC: the FDLR terrorist group, made up of former genocidaire who included RDR members. The group has destabilised the region and been responsible for countless atrocities reported by the UN yet producing no meaningful sanction or interest by the same NGOs, media or parliamentary groups that criticised Rwanda over the M-23. Why the striking mismatch of interest?

Another specific initial RDR strategy has been to target the Rwandan government leadership and its head Paul Kagame. A controversial figure, especially in Francophone and Flemish communities (political, academic and NGO) which supported his predecessor, Kagame has not been forgiven for taking the country into a different geostrategic, linguistic and cultural orbit.
Legitimate questioning of the Rwandan leader and his policies has become conflated with genocide denial. In the early years of Kagame’s presidency, international focus was on how Rwanda could move forward after years of internal and external conflict, insecurity and economic meltdown. Now, as Rwanda embarks on a remarkable new chapter which has brought real improvements in its economy and human security, the focus has shifted onto Kagame’s personality and RPF reprisal killings during and after 1994.

It has always been acknowledged that very serious crimes were committed by the victorious troops who marched through Rwanda during the summer of 1994. However, to equate genocide with reprisals in the aftermath - of the kind that occur after almost every conflict, including the second world war - is deceitful. It is designed to move the debate away from responsibility for the genocide, underplay the horror of the genocide against the Tutsi, and lead to a dehumanising statistical debate which disassociates responsibility from the interim Rwandan government, administrators, interahamwe, military and religious figures who took part.

A United States embassy attaché who was in Kigali in 1995 travelled around the country recording the massacre sites, the piles of bodies, the amputees, the hundreds of thousands of raped women and traumatised children. He noted: "[If] you are going to understand what is happening in Rwanda today, what will happen tomorrow, next month, or for years to come, you have to understand genocide and the enduring consequences of genocide. It permeates, affects and influences human behavior so totally that it is remarkable that the survivors and the government have been able to exercise the degree of restraint they are exhibiting."

Two decades on, the horrifiying reality of the genocide has for many western journalists with little knowledge, time or interest to properly research their subject, and editors with a set position on Kagame’s Rwanda, been forgotten. As a result they are unable to see the RDR's bite-sized evasion and denial as the highly organised campaign it is.

The RDR itself has continued to boost its Francophone and Flemish bases. Genocidaire wanted by Interpol, former members of the CDR (a Hutu extremist party), and well-known genocide-deniers are frequent speakers at European and north American NGO and university events, some even funded by the European Union or mainline NGO’s such as Oxfam-Novib.

In addition, the RDR’s agenda has been boosted by RPF defectors seeking a return to the power they enjoyed after 1994; they see no ethical dilemma in revising the very genocide they once were an important part in bringing to an end. Victoire Ingabire, president of the RDR since 2000, is feted by some in the western media as the Rwandan equivalent of Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi. In her artful media releases there is no mention of her connection with the RDR or her support for the FDLR terrorist group. Such ignorance about Rwanda’s history is worrying but also damaging, for the factual vacuum allows genocide-denial and revision to prosper.

Many deniers have sought to reinvent themselves as "democrats" or "human-rights activists" in order to gain an uncritical hearing in western media. Their campaign received a huge boost in October 2014, when a BBC documentary presented by Jane Corbin was broadcast. It sounded to many with knowledge of the history like an RDR strategy meeting from 1996 or the defence team of Colonel Théoneste Bagosora at the ICTR. Corbin’s programme confirms how effective the denialist campaign has been in seeping into senior anglophone media positions, as well as among members of the political and diplomatic community. The BBC’s trenchant defence of Corbin’s views is of as great a concern as the programme and its contents (see "'Rwanda: The Untold Story': questions for the BBC", 6 October 2014).

The struggle for truth

The Rwandan government has underestimated the need to be proactive in face of the denialist assault, by affirming and disseminating the historical reality of the genocide against the Tutsi. It has neglected to follow the precedent set by Israel: namely, founding a number of excellent documentation centres, university courses, and museums around the globe to tell the story of the Holocaust, thus incidentally making the job of deniers significantly more difficult.

In principle it might be expected that western media, politicians and interested professionals would properly research the genocide, but this is ever less likely in a frenetic news-and-opinion environment. And while hundreds of thousands journey to the Nazi death-camps, far fewer seek out Rwandan massacre sites such as Nyanza, Ntarama, and Kaduha, or the Gisozi memorial. Time, distance and cost will understandably continued to deter many potential visitors.

In these circumstances, it would be immensely valuable (though enormously painful for those involved) if more survivors could tour western university campuses, schools and colleges to tell the truth about what happened; if European-based conferences and forums about the genocide were organised to which media and NGOs were invited; and if documentation centres were opened in the west to allow easy access to the wealth of information available about the crime and the criminals.

Much more needs to be done to assist the fight against impunity on an international level. Attacking denial at every level - from social media, at universities, in the press, within political, church and NGOs groups - is a fight that must be taken with the seriousness of the actual crime itself. Aside from its intrinsic merits, this would complement the extraordinary work already being done by survivor groups such as AVEGA, AERG and SURF in rebuilding lives shattered by physical, emotional and mental scars of genocide. They deserve the dignity of living free of the further assault that denial represents.

Rwandan parliamentarians met in a special session on 4 September to consider the very real dangers that denial and revisionism are causing the country and its people, and to produce strategies to counter the work the RDR and its sympathisers began in the wake of the genocide. They rightly noted that denial has flourished in western countries where impunity from prosecution has become the norm.

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, released a 270-word statement on 7 August, the seventieth anniversary of the agreement that established the Nuremberg trials. It said:

"Surveying the wreckage of Europe and the human toll of the Holocaust, the Allies recognized that the survival of humanity would depend on making it clear that the kind of crimes committed by the Nazi regime simply could not go unpunished, and that holding an official position or acting under orders did not diminish one’s responsibility for such crimes… we will continue to seek accountability for the world’s worst crimes. Such accountability is a stabilizing force in international affairs, and it is what our values - and the memory of the victims - demand."

The rise of genocide-denial and the impunity of those who are allowed to promote it by an apathetic, or sadly in some cases complicit western world, compounds the latter's failure. Would the same attitude be allowed to persist if tens or hundreds of thousands of French, or Belgian or British people had been killed? Would the perpetrators of such crimes be allowed to live free in impunity and to proclaim their denial? Rwanda was abandoned by the international community in 1994. This time the betrayal is, if anything, even deeper. The "civilised" west stands disgraced as long as the situation continues.

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