Irwin Cotler

The lessons of Rwanda

Twenty years after, Syria now challenges the world to fulfill its legally mandated responsibility to protect

As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, where approximately one million Rwandans – mostly ethnic Tutsis – were murdered in less than 100 days – we must ask ourselves: What have we learned?

In the aftermath of the 65th anniversary of the Genocide Convention – sometimes spoken of as the “Never Again” convention – but which has been violated again and again – we must ask ourselves: What must we do?

The horror of the events in Rwanda – and other genocides of the twentieth century, such as the Holocaust and killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia – and the role of the international community as bystander – gave rise to the Responsibility to Protect principle (R2P), regarded as one of the most important international normative doctrines since the Genocide Convention itself. The R2P doctrine – unanimously adopted at the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document by the largest ever gathering of heads of state and government – mandates international action to “protect a state’s population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”

In a word, if such mass atrocity crimes are being committed, and the state where these crimes are occurring is unwilling or unable to act – or worse, is the perpetrator of such international crimes – the Responsibility to Protect abrogates traditional norms of non-interference.

Yet, as we mark the third anniversary of the continuing crimes against humanity perpetrated daily in Syria, the international community has failed to heed the lessons of past tragedies. Now, acting upon R2P is more urgent and necessary than ever. Simply put, if the mass atrocities in Syria don’t activate R2P, R2P ceases to exist.

Accordingly, the lessons of the genocide in Rwanda can pour content into what the Responsibility to Protect entails – and frame our responses to the compelling questions: What have we learned and what must be done?

The first lesson is the importance – and responsibility – of remembrance itself, of bearing witness to the collective failure to act. And more: The mass murder of one million Rwandans – of 10,000 Tutsis being murdered every day for three months – is not a matter of abstract statistics. As we say at these moments of remembrance – unto each person there was a name, each person has an identity, and each person is a universe. And so, the abiding moral imperative that underpins R2P: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other’s destiny.

The second enduring lesson from the Rwandan genocide – not unlike the Holocaust – is that it occurred not only because of the machinery of death, but because of state-sanctioned incitement to hate. Indeed, as the Supreme Court of Canada recognized, and as echoed by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda, the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers – it began with words. As the jurisprudence of the Rwandan tribunals demonstrates, these acts of genocide were preceded by – and anchored in – the state-orchestrated demonization and dehumanization of the minority Tutsi populations.

Simply put, the international community must bear in mind – as the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed in the Mugesara case – that incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself. Taking action to prevent it, as the Genocide Convention compels us, is not a policy option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest order.

The third lesson is the danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction – hence the Responsibility to Act. Simply put, while the UN Security Council and the international community dithered and delayed, Rwandans were dying. What makes the genocide in Rwanda so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocide itself, but that this genocide was preventable. No one can say that we did not know; we knew, but we did not act.

The fourth lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity, and therefore the importance of the responsibility to bring to justice those who engage in mass human rights violations. If the past century was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators of crimes against humanity have been brought to justice. Just as there cannot be sanctuary for hate or refuge for bigotry, neither can there be haven or sanctuary for the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity.

The fifth lesson is the danger of the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable – the brutalized children, the violated women, the slaughter of innocents – all the first targets of mass atrocity crimes. It is therefore our responsibility to empower the powerless while giving voice to the voiceless. Indeed, the test of a just society is how it protects its most vulnerable.

The sixth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial – a criminal conspiracy to erase and whitewash the horror of the genocide in Rwanda. In its most obscene form, genocide denial actually accuses the victim of falsifying the crime – of perpetrating a “hoax.” And so, we have a responsibility to remember the victims of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes – itself a repudiation of such denial.

Seventh is the importance – indeed, responsibility – of remembering the heroic rescuers – those who confronted and resisted evil – who remind us of the range of humanity that prevailed in the face of evil – and thereby transformed history.

Finally, we must remember and pay tribute to the survivors who endured the worst of inhumanity – the worst of crimes against humanity – and somehow found in the resources of their own humanity the will to go on – to rebuild their lives as they contribute to the building of the communities in which they live.

While the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect remains as inadequate as it is incomplete, we must learn – and most importantly act upon – the lessons of the crime whose name we should even shudder to mention.

About the Author
Irwin Cotler is Emeritus Professor of Law at McGill University, International Chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice and Attorney-General of Canada, longtime parliamentarian, and International Legal Counsel to Prisoners of Conscience. He is Canada’s first Special Envoy for Preserving Holocaust Remembrance and Combatting Antisemitism.
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