Genocide in Rwanda – Remember-Educate-Protect

There is an old Rwandan saying  “Imana yirirwa ahandi igataha mu Rwanda” which means “God spends the day elsewhere, but sleeps in Rwanda”.

On 7th April,2015, India and the freedom loving world joined millions of Rwandans to  commemorate  Kwibuka (which means “remember”) 21 or the 21st Commemoration of the Genocide committed against Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994. The theme for Kwibuka 21 was “Remember-Educate-Protect.” In a solemn function to mark Kwibuka 21 in Kigali, the bustling capital of Rwanda, the charismatic Rwandan statesman President Paul Kagame reminded those present and the world at large – “This was the genocide during which people were hunted down like animals, sought everywhere and killed by those who were supposed to be their brothers and sisters. They were hunted down and killed by those with whom they were supposed to share equal rights…Those who teach us about freedom, democracy and human rights are the very same ones welcoming genocidaires who killed one million Rwandans, giving them special treatment, comforting and advocating for them.” On that very day, the son of Africa President Barack Hussein Obama in a statement issued from the White House said – “Twenty-one years ago today, a genocide began that would claim the lives of more than 800,000 Rwandan men, women, and children and mark the beginning of one hundred days of horror for Rwanda’s people.  Today is a day to commemorate those who lost their lives, to honor the courage of those who risked their lives to save others, and to grieve with the Rwandan people.  It is also a day to reaffirm what our common humanity demands—that we stand together to prevent mass atrocities and continue to do all we can to make good on the pledge of “never again.”  We also renew our commitment to help finish the task of bringing to justice those who inflicted such tragedy upon such a beautiful land.”


Everything in Rwanda must be seen through the prism of the 1994 genocide which was a mass cold blooded slaughter of the Tutsi minority by members of the Hutu majority. During the hundred apocalyptic days starting from 7th April, 1994 to mid-July,1994, nearly a million innocent men, women, children and babies were systematically wiped out and no family was left unscathed in one of the most spine chilling and nightmarish genocides the world has ever witnessed. What sparked off the genocide was the assassination of the Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6th April,1994 whose aeroplane was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles on it’s descent into Kigali airport.  The President of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira, who was a co-passenger was also killed. Following Habyarimana’s death, a military committee headed by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora took immediate control of the country. The genocide was then planned and executed by members of the core political elite known as the “akazu” meaning “little house” (a pre-colonial expression used to describe the circle of sycophantic courtiers around a king!), many of whom occupied positions at top levels of the government, the “Interahamwe” (meaning “those who stand/work/fight/attack together”) , the youth wing of the Mouvement Révolutionaire National pour le Développement (MRND) party, the ruling political party in Rwanda, and the “Impuzamugambi” (meaning “those who have a single goal”) controlled by the leadership of the Coalition pour la Défense de la République (CDR) . They used state resources and authority to incite or force tens of thousands of Hutus to arm themselves with machetes, nail studded clubs and other lethal weapons to rape, maim and kill their fellow countrymen (including Rwanda’s first and only female Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, her husband Ignace Barahira, the Rwandan Foreign Minister Boniface Ngulinzira and all moderate political leaders) and destroy or steal their properties mercilessly in the most barbaric fashion, loathingly treating them as “inyenzi” or “cockroaches”. During these events and in their aftermath, the United Nations and major international players like the United States, Great Britain and Belgium remained mute spectators and convenient bystanders and failed to strengthen the force and mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, whilst France (which was an ally of the pre-genocide Rwandan government) earned the notoriety of giving it’s tacit support to the perpetrators of the genocide. The former Ghanaian UN Secretary General Kofi Atta Annan rightly observed, “In their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda.” Significantly, the United States showed a studied reluctance to get involved in the “local conflict” in Rwanda and refused to label the killings as “genocide”. On 28th April,1994, the US State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley was specifically asked at a press briefing whether what was happening in Rwanda amounted to a genocide. She glibly responded by saying that “the use of the term ‘genocide’ has a very precise legal meaning, although it’s not strictly a legal determination. There are other factors in there as well…we have to undertake a very careful study before we can make a final kind of determination.” The noted American journalist and author Philip Gourevitch aptly observed – “The Clinton administration’s policy was, ‘Let’s withdraw altogether. Let’s get out of Rwanda. Leave it to its fate.’” The United States Ambassador to the United Nations at that time was the Czech born American diplomat and politician Madeleine Jana Korbel Albright and it was she who represented this unsavoury position to the UN Security Council and did so most effectively! In March,1998, as the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal was consuming his Presidency and eroding his impeccable credentials, President Bill Clinton escaped to Africa to make his long-planned tour of the continent and strengthen America’s commitment to Africa. On 25th March,1998, he offered what is today known as the “Clinton apology” to a motley crowd of Rwandans assembled on the tarmac at Kigali airport – “I have come today to pay the respects of my Nation to all who suffered and all who perished in the Rwandan genocide. It is my hope that through this trip, in every corner of the world today and tomorrow, their story will be told; that 4 years ago in this beautiful, green, lovely land, a clear and conscious decision was made by those then in power that the peoples of this country would not live side by side in peace. During the 90 days that began on April 6, in 1994, Rwanda experienced the most extensive slaughter in this blood-filled century we are about to leave—families murdered in their homes, people hunted down as they fled by soldiers and militia, through farmland and woods as if they were animals…The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope.” On 26th January,1999, President Clinton publicly regretted the stand taken by the United States in a Frontline television interview entitled “The Triumph of Evil” and in retrospect confessed that he believed that if he had sent 5,000 U.S. peacekeepers to Rwanda, more than 500,000 lives could have been saved.

lawzmagazine.comGoing back in time to the monstrous holocaust in Rwanda, the UN Security Council on 28th April,1994 passed a resolution condemning the killing but scrupulously  omitting the word “genocide”. The United Nations failed to see the ground reality but ultimately conceded on 17th May,1994 that “acts of genocide may have been committed”. By that time, the die had been cast and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that 500,000 Rwandans had been killed. The UN agreed to send 5,500 troops, mostly from African countries, to Rwanda.  The UN also requested 50 armoured personnel carriers from the United States. The US Army charged a staggering $6.5 million for transport alone! Some UN peacekeepers protected Rwandans despite the severe organizational limitations. One Senegalese peacekeeper, Mbaye Diagne, drove 1,000 people through multiple check points to safety, a feat that no nation even attempted. Others stood helplessly outside churches where hundreds of Tutsi refugees had taken refuge. The well known Rwandan humanist and humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina, who single-handedly saved 1,268 refugees by sheltering them in the iconic Sabena owned Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, observed – “In a sense things got better after the peacekeepers left … People realized no one was going to help them.” Rusesabagina’s saintly actions inspired the 2004 American film “Hotel Rwanda” produced and directed by the well known Irish-American director Terence “Terry” George in which Rusesabagina was memorably portrayed by the Oscar nominee Don Cheadle. As the supreme guerrilla commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPT) who marched from the Ugandan Bush to Kigali, it was Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame (the undisputed “master of psychological warfare”) who triumphantly vanquished the government forces in Kigali on 4th July,1994, put an end to the genocide and tilted the scales towards reconciliation and reconstruction, rather than retribution, in a true Gandhian spirit.

The genocide had a lasting and profound impact on Rwanda and its neighbouring countries. The pervasive use of war rape caused a spike in HIV/AIDS infection, including babies born out of rape to newly infected mothers and many households were headed by orphaned children or widows. The genocide served as the impetus for creating the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) on 8th November,1994 by the UN Security Council to eliminate the need for ad hoc tribunals to prosecute  those involved in instigating, leading and perpetrating the genocide. On 28th March,2014, the American  organization Human Rights released a 20 page paper entitled, “Justice After Genocide: 20 Years On,” focusing on the achievements of courts in Rwanda and in other countries to hold to account those who had planned, ordered, and carried out the genocide.“The Rwandan genocide was one of the most terrifying episodes of targeted ethnic violence in recent world history,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. In his concluding remarks, Bekele asserted – “As the world’s eyes turn to Rwanda once again, Rwanda and other countries should build on the achievements of the last 20 years in delivering justice for these terrible crimes… They should keep up the efforts to arrest and prosecute, in fair and credible trials, others responsible for these crimes who are still at large.”

In an important address to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington on 21st April,2004 shortly after the 10th Commemoration of Genocide, President Kagabe said, “We have not only reformed our legal system, we have also restored public trust in it and the Rwandan people now know and enjoy their fundamental rights… We have embarked on what we consider to be an irreversible course of unity and reconciliation, while at the same time we seek to bring to justice the perpetrators of genocide.”On the occasion of the 19th Commemoration of Genocide on 7th April,2013, President Kagabe aptly observed – “Genocide is a crime against humanity that has no borders and is not time-bound. That is why we will continue to go after all those who committed genocide wherever they may be and bring them to justice.” On 28th  August,2013, Mr.Justice Sam Rugege, the Oxford educated Chief Justice of Rwanda, in a keynote address to the  Qatar Law Forum, London, made the important revelation – “In 2003 a new Constitution came into force and laid the framework for reform of the judiciary. The court system was restructured.  The Supreme Court was unified and the rest of the judicial system streamlined for better coordination and efficiency. A new system of modernized traditional courts (Gacaca) was established to deal with the thousands of people accused of participation in the genocide. These courts were aimed at bringing about justice to the families of those who lost their loved ones and lost property, but also to give those charged with these heavy crimes a chance to have their day in court as quickly as reasonably possible so that they could either be convicted and serve their sentences or if innocent be released and return to their place in society. The Gacaca system was intended to avoid revenge and to promote the rule of law.  It had provisions aimed at reconciliation among the communities. The sentencing provisions which allowed substantial reduction of sentence for those who confessed and asked for forgiveness, promoted reconciliation and enabled perpetrators to eventually be reintegrated into society to play their part in the reconstruction of the country and the rebirth of a nation. The new constitution required magistrates and judges to be qualified in law, unlike previously where even persons trained in agriculture or commerce could be appointed judges. A new independent judicial council chaired by the Chief Justice and dominated by representatives of judicial officers, was set up and qualified judicial officers appointed by the Council. The constitution also expressly provides in Article 140 that “the judiciary is independent and separate from the legislature and the executive branches of government” and that “the judiciary shall enjoy financial and administrative autonomy”. It further provides in Article 142 that in exercising their functions, judges are only subject to the law and shall be independent from any other power or authority.”

In conclusion, I feel as an indefatigable limb of the law that it is imperative that the world community sets in motion a fresh and more comprehensive International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda principally on the lines of the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal. In that context, I am highly emboldened to commend to you the wise words of  Sir Hartley William Shawcross, the legendary English Barrister and politician and the lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, who in his opening statement to the Tribunal on 4th December,1945 said in his deep, resonant voice, “And so we believe that this Tribunal..with complete and judicial objectivity, will provide a contemporary touchstone and an authoritative and impartial record to which future historians may turn for truth, and future politicians for warning. From this record shall future generations know not only what our generation suffered, but also that our suffering was the result of crimes, crimes against the laws of peoples which the peoples of the world upheld and will continue in the future to uphold—to uphold by international co-operation…and firmly grounded, in the rule of law.”



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N.B.  On 1st  July,2012, the author was honoured with an award for his “Solidarity and Enduring Partnership” with Rwanda by the then Rwandan High Commissioner to India Williams Nkurunziza on the occasion of Rwanda’s Golden Jubilee of independence in New Delhi. On 7th April,2014,the author gave a keynote address on the occasion of Kwibuka 20 organised by the Rwandan High Commission in New Delhi.

2 thoughts on “Genocide in Rwanda – Remember-Educate-Protect”

  1. vincent chase says:

    I dont know but somebody did asked about this on quora.

  2. Tarun says:

    Well written

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