Twenty years ago this month, the genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsis, the most brutally efficient killing spree in history, began. As the international community looked on – capable of intervening but unwilling to act – more than 1 million Tutsis and others who stood in the way of the atrocities were slaughtered. I count many in my own family among them.
The anniversary is wrenching for Rwanda, and yet we owe it to the victims and survivors – and to ourselves – to reckon squarely with the events of 1994. The genocide against the Tutsi was neither entirely unforeseen nor spontaneous. It was not a savage outburst of innate African tribalism. It was the outcome of a methodical, state-orchestrated campaign over a period of decades to dehumanize Tutsis as a means to amass power.
The imported racist ideology that promoted hatred and enabled genocide was a toxin deliberately injected into Rwanda’s bloodstream. It brought us to our knees. It threatened our viability as a nation-state. But it did not prevail.
It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of the challenges that Rwanda confronted in the aftermath of the genocide. Political institutions had collapsed, the justice system was in disarray and the national budget was in tatters. Civil society was nonexistent. The country’s population was traumatized and afraid. Rwandan territory was under perpetual assault from genocidal militias seeking to “finish the job.”
For good reason, the international community expected nothing more from post-genocide Rwanda than state failure marked by total aid dependency and unrelenting ethnic violence.
The practical tasks of reviving a dead economy and rebuilding institutions were daunting, but they would have been impossible had we not begun to root out the ideology that enabled genocide. This was – and continues to be – our great national project, because ending old divisions requires no less work than instilling them in the first place.
How should we remember the genocide today, and how should we prevent the tragedy that played out on Rwandan soil from happening again, anywhere in the world?
First, we must ensure that the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine – whereby the international community has an obligation to intervene in order to prevent genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing – is more than a norm in international law; it must be transformed into a cornerstone of international relations. While it is true that the independence and sovereignty of states are fundamental to international relations, the right to live is even more critical for the survival of the community of nations.
That is why Rwanda has contributed 850 troops to the International Support Mission to the Central African Republic, to aid in its mandate to stabilize the country. Rwandan forces are also participating in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. And, from our seat on the U.N. Security Council, we continue to advocate in favor of Syrian civilians who have faced years of assault from their government.
Second, and related to the Responsibility to Protect, we must enhance the protection of civilians in armed conflicts before conflicts occur. The proliferation of non-state armed groups around the world makes civilian protection both more urgent and harder to achieve. We must therefore work together to invest in the professionalization of military and police forces, particularly to ensure adequate training. Only when security officials in every country embrace the imperative to protect civilians will decisive progress be made.
Third, we need to ensure that where tragedies occur, justice prevails. This involves recognizing that each conflict will require different, local mechanisms for addressing grievances and restoring trust. Because slow moving Western-style courts could not possibly manage the load, Rwanda turned to traditional Gacaca courts to hear more than 2 million genocide-related cases. By allowing the survivors to seek justice and perpetrators to seek forgiveness, the success of Gacaca is evident in how Rwandans today, whether they were killers and survivors, live side by side peacefully.
The task of confronting the causes and consequences of genocide is imperative for people everywhere. We must fight the impulse to obfuscate, deny or forget. The international community, whose response to the unfolding slaughter in Rwanda was to withdraw peacekeepers and evacuate expatriates, should not avert its eyes from its moral and political failure. The lessons are too important, and the stakes too high, especially for populations facing systematic discrimination and violence today and in the future.
Twenty years is no time at all in the life of a country, and yet having teetered on the brink of state failure in 1994, Rwandans today face the future with optimism and unwavering determination. While many challenges remain, our country’s progress has been undeniable. Strong and consistent economic growth has allowed over 1 million Rwandans to lift themselves out of poverty in the last six years. Life expectancy has doubled in the past two decades. Our country is on course to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.
Most important, Rwandans have discarded dangerous and outmoded ethnic labels in favor of a unified national identity built around the values of self-reliance, hard work and, above all, dignity. There is no greater antidote to hatred and conflict than the well-grounded belief that the future offers progress and possibility.
Louise Mushikiwabo is Rwanda’s foreign affairs and cooperation minister. For more information about the 20th anniversary of the genocide, see www.kwibuka.org. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).