The genocide denialist movement, buoyed by powerful international actors, has been on the resurgence for the last half-decade, and every year, it has been pushing the envelope in what is increasingly becoming a staredown with the government, with almost everyone now waiting to see who will blink first. The latter has the upper hand for various reasons, mainly that decent Rwandans, across ethnicities, have been speaking out against the despicable denial and are very angry at the authorities for dillydallying and appeasing the denialists when they should be enforcing the law. The denialists’ audacity to denounce Kwibuka crossed the line and, as a result, things might not be the same again for this movement, at least inside Rwanda.
It is also intellectually shallow. On Youtube, where this movement has proliferated, it has made a number of fallacious claims that don’t stand up to scrutiny. One of such claims is that genocide commemoration (Kwibuka) undermines the unity of Rwandans because it only preserves the memory of “one side” and that for genuine unity “both sides” should be remembered during the period that was set aside for commemoration starting on April 7. Moreover, that either “both sides” are remembered or we do away with remembrance altogether because the occasion serves as a periodic reminder to Hutus about the crimes, they committed in 1994, and that, as long as there was forgiveness, such reminders should cease to exist. Indeed, that ending commemoration would help society “move on” and leave the genocide behind us. While we are at it, they say, we should also dismantle genocide memorials for similar reasons.
The denialists are mad. For starters, genocide perpetrators, deniers, and their sympathisers cannot determine the terms of reconciliation and unity. Second, the word memory is preceded by a silent word, which is “collective.” It is factually true that genocide was perpetrated against the Tutsi; however, collective memory (not Tutsi memory) belongs to all Rwandans – Hutus, Tutsi, and Twa. Its aim is to cultivate collective consciousness around the tragedy as a means of preventing recurrence of genocide, and it is this collective ownership of the problem that reassures survivors of their safety and serves as the basis for genuine reconciliation without which unity is not possible.
Third, the idea that forgiveness requires forgetting is a fallacy. Only unrepentant genocidaires and their sympathisers, with a vested interest in the recurrence of genocide, would find commemoration and memorials problematic precisely because in collective memory they identify a threat that is direly linked to their lives and ambitions. On the contrary, forgiveness is not necessary where there is no demonstration of remorse. Indeed, there is no remorse where there is a commitment to recidivism, and the feeling of being inundated by commemoration is proof of underserved forgiveness. Moreover, it is absurd to expect that the feelings of genocidaires and their sympathisers could be prioritised over those of survivors and the rest of society.
Unrepentant perpetrators and genocide deniers are relentless because memory is evidence for their crimes, crimes of genocide and crimes of genocide denial respectively. By attempting to erase the collective memory of crimes of genocide, they seek to tamper with the crime scene, among other strategies such as creating ambiguity around genocide by invoking related concepts like civil war that carry lesser moral opprobrium than the society’s condemnation they are facing. Indeed, it is memory and remembrance that compelled some perpetrators to show remorse and give indications as to where their victims were buried. It is, therefore, memory and remembrance combined with remorse on the part of perpetrators that will contribute to genuine reconciliation.
Moreover, unrepentant perpetrators and their sympathisers seek to drag the entire Hutu community into their own predicament. For instance, forgiveness was extended only to perpetrators of genocide who showed remorse; it wasn’t the community they belonged to that stood accused of genocide. It’s a fact beyond debate that perpetrators were brought before community courts (Gacaca Courts) presided by Rwandans from all ethnic backgrounds and that the testimonies denouncing their crimes were given by the community of Rwandans as a whole, including their own relatives. Therefore, the idea that genocide commemoration targets Hutus as a community is false. It simply fits a narrative of genocide deniers who have attempted to criminalise the entire Hutu population as a means of evading their own responsibility, as well as the political elite who seek to exploit the group.
Therefore, Rwandans don’t remember to condemn Hutu guilt or to affirm Tutsi righteousness as the denialist movement claims when it aims to distort through ambiguity and, as a result, to evade accountability – moral and legal. In fact, this is not different from 1994 when leaders openly told people that, in the act of “self-defense,” if all of them took part in the killing, no one would be held accountable.
A crime like no other
The 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as any “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
In the context of Rwanda, only the “ethnical” part is relevant since no other defined groups were targeted during the 1994 genocide. Accordingly, the government of the day identified the Tutsi as the ethnic target group to be destroyed; an intent made evident by the genocidal massacres that marked the period from October 1990 to April 1994, and executed countrywide over 100 days starting from the 7th of April, 1994.
Genocide deniers, unlike deniers of the Holocaust, suggest that the genocide commemoration in Rwanda should remember both Hutus and Tutsis because “both sides” lost people. In Kinyarwanda, they say: “impande zombi zarishiwe.” They apply, without context, President Kagame’s acknowledgement that Hutus died in 1994 as justification for their genocide minimisation tactics.
This is equivalent to saying that the Holocaust commemoration should recognise the Jews and Germans who died in 1945 because “both sides” lost people. Of course, Germans died in 1945. Hutus also died in 1994. However, if we pursue this line of thinking, it means that the concept of genocide would be discarded. Instead, it would be the concept of “civil war” that is at play. However, it is a fact beyond debate that, just like the Holocaust happened in Germany and throughout Europe during the World war II, a genocide against the Tutsi took place in Rwanda in 1994. Indeed, Raphael Lemkin conceived the concept of genocide to ensure that the moral implications of “civil war” and genocide are not equivalent. Why should it be so? The answer, Lemkin argued, is that genocide is the crime of crimes with the highest moral opprobrium and whose victims are targeted without an option to “exit death” since they cannot denounce their ethnicity in order to get a reprieve from the killers. This was demonstrated by the last words of a three-year-old boy who was among those who had taken sanctuary in Nyamata. “Please do not kill me. I’ll never be a Tutsi again,” the child pleaded with his killers, offering to denounce his ethnicity, which he rightly had identified as the cause of the predicament he had found himself in (Sinzongera kuba umututsi!).
In the international system, the primary responsibility to protect the people within a state jurisdiction falls on the government. However, governments are the central perpetrators of genocides and holocausts. For this reason, in cases like Rwanda, the occurrence of genocides demonstrates a deliberate intent of the government to target a section of society. In so doing, the targeted group comes under the protection of humanity. This is why genocide is a crime against humanity.
The failure of humanity to carry out this responsibility explains the commitment to “Never Again!”, which implies acceptance of the shortcomings, assurance that lessons have been learned, and commitment on the part of humanity that the community of nations will not be repeat offenders. The subtext of this is that humanity is prepared to allow other tragedies (civil wars and the like) to happen – but never genocide!
“Never Again” goes hand in hand with the concept of genocide. The former expresses the moral commitment against the recurrence of the latter. There is no point in pointing to a danger that no one is prepared to do anything about – like screaming fire in a movie theatre, but everyone continues watching the show!
Responsibility to protect genocidaires
Denial laws are in place in Europe and in Rwanda because of the tendency of human beings not to learn lessons. Consequently, this human limitation in collective memory is what makes genocide denial laws necessary as the first line of defense against the recurrence of genocide. Accordingly, the responsibility to protect starts well before the actual killings begin because, as history tells us, once genocide fires have started, it is already too late to save lives. These laws are supposed to prevent the future need for humanitarian intervention, which is the last resort in the responsibility to protect – when all else has failed.
Further, genocide denial serves as proof that lessons have not been learned and the recurrence of genocide is possible, even likely, depending on the proliferation of the denial. Genocide denial laws, therefore, should be conceived as the internal mechanism to the principle of responsibility to protect, the activation of the latter following the failure of the former to reign in the slippery slope to catastrophe. In other words, never again, genocide denial laws, and the responsibility to protect are inextricably linked.
The stakes are high in Rwanda because the resurgence of genocide denial is linked to a concerted effort by powerful external forces that are convinced that President Kagame has “overstayed” in power and that he should be replaced, even if it is by someone from the denialist movement. However, the moral reprehension attached to this movement forces its foreign supporters to conceal their real aims under the guise of promoting dissent.
They believe that the only way to force Kagame out is through public incitement and that a sensitive subject that touches on almost everyone in Rwandan society, like genocide, would be the spark of his removal by a popular uprising. In other words, the support for the denialist movement is not accidental, even the methods used aren’t.
But they underestimate the consensus of Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi, against genocide – even those who would otherwise not support Kagame. Moreover, and this is important, Rwandans know that when push comes to shove, foreigners run away with their dogs and leave the natives to sort themselves out. The genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 was on the backdrop of the political context of the early 1990s when foreigners were pushing for a form of democratisation that gave free reign to extremist radios, such as RTLM, to incite people to kill one another. When the incitement got out of hand and genocide was happening, the US government refused to jam the RTLM airwaves because doing so would undermine freedom of speech. In other words, then and now, in the western conception, freedom of speech and dissent supersede the responsibility to protect African lives. Even when they acknowledge in their own countries that Holocaust denial represents hate speech, which is unprotected under freedom of speech, they choose to legitimise genocide denial when it comes to Rwanda because, in their view, it is the straw that will break the camel’s back of a stubborn regime.
But if denial is unhealthy for European democracy, it ought not to be prescribed to Africans, either. The irony, therefore, is that these powerful external forces have taken up the responsibility to protect unrepentant genocide perpetrators. Consequently, it is incumbent upon those who disproportionately suffer the consequences – the affected – to decide whether to bring meaning to “Never Again” or to join others, for whom what they are promoting has no effect on their lives, in the sloganeering. In other words, it is well and good if the unaffected choose not to learn a lesson, but it is abominable that those who have been in the fire forget its heat.