Whatever happened to the spirit of learning Rwanda’s lessons?

As we commemorate the Rwandan genocide, the promises of ‘never again’ look particularly bleak in 2016. How can these promises mean more in the future?

Kate Ferguson
7 April 2016
Homs, Syria, 2012. Flickr/Freedom House. Some rights reserved.

Homs, Syria, 2012. Flickr/Freedom House. Some rights reserved.Two years ago, I was working in Rwanda to assist with the twentieth commemoration of the 1994 genocide. The anniversary was marked around the world at Rwandan embassies, by foreign parliaments, and at the United Nations. In Rwanda’s capital Kigali, I watched as heads of state, ambassadors and other leading representatives of the world paid tribute to the victims and survivors, and committed to ‘learning lessons’. 

Today, 7 April 2016, marks the twenty-second anniversary of the genocide, and I can’t help but reflect upon those heartfelt promises. 

I work in a small sector dedicated to preventing mass atrocity crimes and protecting people from that threat. Despite the scale of the challenge, usually I’m hopeful and positive. When people ask why I do what I do, I tell them to look back fifty or even twenty years, and consider the progress that has been made in understanding our shared responsibility to defend the rights of others. I tell them that I believe great things can be achieved by a small group of committed individuals and organisations.

On days like today, I sometimes find it difficult to be so optimistic. 

I think of Syria and its destruction, of its refugees fleeing five years of systematic state violence only to be turned away from Europe’s shores. Whatever happened to that spirit of learning Rwanda’s lessons, so often repeated in the glib phrase, ‘never again’?

Earlier this year a United Nations commission of inquiry into human rights abuses in Syria released a report which accused the Syrian government of committing “the crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, rape, or other forms of sexual violence, torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhumane acts.”  Over 250,000 people have died in Syria and 12 million have been displaced. The Syria Campaign estimates the Syrian government is responsible for over 95% of the civilian deaths. 

When I read the UN Commission of Experts’ report on Syria, I can’t help but remember April 2014 in Kigali, when so many of the great and the powerful expressed sorrow for the past and hope for the future. What lessons has the world really learnt from Rwanda, or from Bosnia, or Darfur?

The international community has failed to learn that mass violence does not always look the same. In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda was described as a struggle for tribal domination. The ethnic cleansing and mass slaughter of Bosnia’s Muslims were explained away as the consequences of civil war. These dominant portrayals of the systematic targeting of civilians had the effect of reducing international moral outrage and diluting any notion of a responsibility to protect. Because the violence committed against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority and Bosnia’s Muslims did not look like the familiar images associated with the genocide against Europe’s Jewry, the international community was able to justify their inaction. 

One of the reasons the world failed Syria is because the crimes committed by the Assad government against his people have not always been characterised as being intentional and systematic. Instead, the Syrian crisis has consistently been presented as being too complicated for the international community to respond to, long before we reached the devastating point we are at now. There was a moment when it wasn’t too late to act and when Assad’s culpability was just as evident. 

It is not a question of what is and is not genocide, but rather at what point civilians threatened by identity-based mass violence deserve protection. It is about learning from the horrors of the past and the shame of having not protected lives.

We have failed to learn that systematic mass violence often succeeds when it is masked by our own prejudices and fears. Just as Darfur was presented by the Sudanese government as being a spontaneous tribal crisis, or as president Milosevic talked about Bosnia being an explosion of ancient hatreds, president Assad has always sought to exploit the west’s fears of Muslim sectarianism and Islamist terrorism. The world failed Syria – at least in part – because decision-makers believed, or hid behind, Assad’s claims of sectarian and extremist Islamist elements, long before such insidious elements came to the fore. The presence of ISIS in Syria today is as much a result of Assad’s actions as the global community’s inaction. 

Perhaps most importantly, the political establishment has failed to learn that addressing the humanitarian consequences of mass atrocity crimes alone is an insufficient response to a state-led policy of mass violence. While the $10 billion pledged earlier in the year in London is an admirable and important achievement, humanitarian aid alone will not save the lives of those who remain in Syria. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the humanitarian agenda distracts from the central crisis. Syria is portrayed as the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation and receives the single largest aid package; but Syria should also be seen as the gravest human rights crisis, where the most wide-spread and systematic attack on a civilian population is taking place. And on that front, the world has done little. 

These failures are not only evident in UK or international policy towards Syria. Today, Rwanda’s neighbour Burundi is on the brink. Burundi, like Rwanda, experienced acute mass violence in the 1990s and has, for the past few years, been heading towards political crisis. The warning signs were clear, but no action was taken – in fact the UK decided to end its bilateral aid programme with Burundi in 2011. Political violence is now becoming increasingly identity-based, but still the world dithers.

Addressing the gravest forms of mass violence is not easy and there is no silver bullet. The decision to actively protect the lives of civilians requires political will and bravery: it is much harder to count the lives you save than those you did not. 

But there are ways in which a country like the UK could match strong rhetorical commitments to atrocity prevention with stronger policy. 

By recognising the prevention of mass atrocity crimes as a national priority, integrating an early warning system, and introducing a cross-cabinet response mechanism, the UK government would find itself in a more informed, better coordinated position to tackle the threat of atrocity crimes. By just acknowledging that the prevention of atrocity violence is distinct from conflict prevention and requires greater emphasis on civilian protection, greater attention would be given in Department for International Development and Foreign Office decision-making to the root causes and risk factors. Integrating indicators of social cohesion, funding inclusive media initiatives, promoting programmes of dialogue and critical thinking would address grass-root processes of prejudice, exclusion, and real or perceived divisions.

Two years ago, sitting in Kigali’s Amahoro stadium on the day of the commemoration, I listened to UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon insist on the need to learn the lessons of Rwanda’s suffering. Before we know it, we will be at events commemorating Syria’s dead and the world’s failure to protect them. Renewed and emotive rhetorical commitments will no doubt follow. I will continue trying to persuade decision-makers in the UK to do more for Syria, Iraq, Burundi, Central African Republic, Myanmar and elsewhere.

Today, I just wish it was a little easier, and that promises meant a little more. 

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