The Future of Genocide is Unfortunately Very Bright: A decade after Rwanda, world’s human carnage is alive and well
While the numbers change, the vows stay the same. After 11 million people (including 6 million Jews) were exterminated in World War II, the world said, “Never again.” After 1.7 million people were confirmed dead from Pol Pot’s murderous rule in Cambodia, the world said, “Never again.” After the tragedy of Rwanda, when 800,000 people were massacred in three months, the world said, “Never again.” Can it happen again? It’s hard to believe it cannot. Genocide always makes a comeback somewhere in the world.
Wednesday marked the 10-year anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. In a pilgrimage of respect, representatives from every hemisphere flew to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, to express their sorrow and to witness the country’s attempts to move on. Kofi Annan has already apologized for the United Nations’ failure to stop Rwanda’s murders. So has former President Bill Clinton, who has said he’ll “always regret” not taking more action against the Hutu extremists who used machetes, clubs and other crude weapons to kill their victims. Unfortunately, there may always be more genocides for which to apologize. Even today, alarming atrocities occur out of the glare of international attention.
For example, in Sudan. Because of fighting in the western part of the country, almost 1 million ethnic Sudanese have been forced to flee their villages in the past year, while thousands of their countrymen reportedly have been murdered and raped by government-backed militias. The perpetrators are of Arab descent (Sudan is a member of the Arab League); the victims are non-Arab tribespeople. Nine days ago, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report about the brutality, but it generated little outrage or media attention.
For example, in Ethiopia. In the past five months, hundreds of Anuak — an indigenous people living near the country’s western border with Sudan — have been killed, apparently with the tacit support of the government in Addis Ababa, which is trying to resettle other Ethiopians onto the land. “The world knows nothing about this,” says Gregory Stanton, a former State Department official who heads Genocide Watch, based in Washington. “There are only 100,000 Anuak left on the face of the Earth, and the Ethiopian government has declared that it wants to resettle about a million highland Ethiopians into the lowland areas where the Anuak live. So, ethnically cleansing them and moving them off and getting them to move to Sudan is government policy.”
Stanton calls it genocide. He also has a theory (also voiced by others, including Rwandans) about why Western governments are reluctant to get involved when genocide happens in Africa: That atrocities against blacks there don’t count as much as atrocities against Americans or Europeans that happen anywhere in the world. Ten years ago, there was no international political will to stop the Rwandan genocide. “We still have not come to the point where African lives are worth as much as (other) lives in the eyes of many people,” Stanton says. “I think it’s racism. It’s too bad that we’re still in that era, that we don’t see that we’re all part of the human race.”
Beyond the issues of race and will are the practical impediments to stopping genocide. The United Nations doesn’t have an armed force it can easily dispatch. It doesn’t have an effective monitoring system for genocide. These shortcomings exist despite the fact that U.N. member countries supposedly adhere to a convention — adopted in 1948, after the horrors of the Holocaust — that requires them to prevent genocide anywhere it happens. (When Rwanda’s murders began on April 7, 1994, the United States sent Marines to rescue American citizens in Rwanda, but for the next month, Washington officials refused to utter the word “genocide” to describe the killings there-despite knowing that atrocities were being committed. By April 21, 1994, Hutu extremists had already killed 100,000 people.)
Annan admitted the U.N.’s shortcomings at a mayor genocide conference three months ago in Stockholm. There he announced his support for a special envoy on the prevention of genocide, a new U.N. position that would report directly to the Security Council. Ten years ago, when the U.N.’s top commander in Rwanda, Gen. Romeo Dallaire, cabled his bosses in New York to warn of an impending slaughter, his pleas fell into a bureaucratic black hole. They were discounted by top brass, including Annan (who was then in charge of U.N. peacekeeping). Dragged down by the U.N.’s indifference, Dallaire was powerless to stop the widespread killings, which quickly escalated and lasted for 100 brutal days. Waves of killings of Tutsis, as far back as the 1950s, preceded the 1994 slaughter. Rwanda should have been on some kind of genocide watch list, but it wasn’t.
Alison DesForges, a Rwanda expert who is senior adviser to the African division of Human Rights Watch, says the international community ignored warning signs in Rwanda, including the government’s categorization of citizens along ethnic lines. In a policy that stemmed from Belgium’s former colonial rule, Rwandans were forced to carry identity cards that listed themselves as Tutsi or Hutu. In the early 1990s, an extremist Hutu radio station in Rwanda (Radio RTLM) repeatedly broadcast messages of hate against Tutsis. A pro-Hutu newspaper (Kangura) also published tracts in the 1990s encouraging ethnic hatred against Tutsis, including a “commandment” that warned, “Tutsi are blood and power thirsty. They want to impose their hegemony on the Rwandan people by cannon and sword.” All of this was on public record before April 7, 1994, when Hutu extremists reacted to the death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana by unleashing their fury.
“Full-blown genocide grows out of decades of ethnic tension, racial hatred, that builds up and reaches a climax when it mutates into full-blown genocide,” says William Schab as, a Rwanda expert who is professor of law and director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at National University of Ireland in Galway. “Prior to that, you have waves of ethnic cleansing and other forms of persecution of a vulnerable minority. And that continues to go on in the world.” Experts say genocide almost always happens in countries run by despots, military figures or other unelected leaders. As in Sudan today, these countries often ignore human-rights pleas from outside the country, so it becomes a question of international resolve: How much is the Security Councilor the United States willing to do to stop potential bloodshed? Not much, it appears, in some cases. In her Human Rights Watch report titled, “Rwanda: Lessons Learned,” DesForges writes that Washington considered jamming the messages of hate on Radio RTLM in 1994, but considered it too expensive. The cost: $8,000 an hour.
The world is easily distracted from far-away atrocities. In mid-June 1994, when the full extent of Rwanda’s killings were first being made public, the stabbing death of OJ Simpson’s wife dominated news coverage in the United States. The troubles of an ex-football star trumped the deaths of almost 1 million Africans. “When I founded Genocide Watch,” Stanton says, “my aim was, ‘We won’t let genocide happen again. If you guys aren’t going to do anything about it, we’re going to vote you out of office,’ ” he says. Pausing a bit to reflect on the likelihood that genocide will be stopped, he says, “It’s going to be a long battle.”
At the genocide conference in Stockholm, Annan suggested genocide will be a lasting problem. In his keynote speech he said, “I long for the day when we can say with confidence that, confronted with a new Rwanda … the world would respond effectively, and in good time. But let us not delude ourselves.” Annan’s observation may be a healthy development. “It’s a more hopeful sign than you might think, because it indicates a realistic appreciation of the situation of the world,” says DesForges. “If you have that, then you can be prepared to do something. If you go around with blinders on saying, ‘Never again, never again, never again,’ then you’re not prepared to act.”
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at firstname.lastname@example.org