Denial is the biggest threat facing the memory of genocide. It impedes efforts to develop the collective consciousness around the genocide, to take stock of the tragedy, as the safeguard against recurrent. The basis for the “never again” is that there is consensus that genocide is an affront to humanity.
So, why does the genocide against the Tutsi invite reactions that are counter to this consensus and what are the consequences for never again in Rwanda and the world?
Ordinarily, the global reaction to a tragedy of this magnitude – genocide is a crime committed against the entire humanity – solicits solidarity and sympathy for victims and survivors. Indeed, the traditional custodians of moral conscience – churches, media, academia, etc. – are often at the forefront of mobilizing the solidarity that preserves the memory of victims and the dignity of survivors.
The Holocaust – genocide against the Jews – happened to coincide with the expansion of the space for the custodians of moral authority, particularly with the mushrooming of civil society and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that took place in the aftermath of WW2.
Their role – moral and material support– support to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and to the dignity of survivors cannot be ignored.
Ironically, it is these traditional custodians of moral conscience that have turned their backs against the victims and survivors of the genocide. It has been short of bizarre that for the past twenty-five years they have preserved sympathy and solidarity to the perpetrators of the genocide; in so doing, they have assaulted the memory of victims and the resilience of survivors.
In the aftermath of the genocide, the aid industry was faced with competing for humanitarian crises involving survivors inside the country and perpetrators in the refugee camps in the then Zaire, now DRC. Much of the support that was allocated to Rwanda went to the camps and the perpetrators – with the support of France and Mobutu– used most of it to regroup in efforts to take back the country and complete the genocide.
This solidarity with the perpetrators informed a hostile attitude towards those who had stopped the genocide, whom the aid industry continued to treat as a temporary arrangement that would not last.
It is an attitude that was shared by the NGOs that were operating inside the country.
This undertone of mutual suspicion led to the decision by the government to expel almost 50 NGOs from the country in 1996.
By this time the RPF government was still trying to find itself. It found its footing from the 1998-1999 Urugwiro consultative meetings that provided the blue print for how post genocide Rwanda would be managed. Crucially, the decision to look internally for a model of governance in general and to reject the confrontational approach to politics in favour of a consensus-based approach frame the broader contours of the struggle in which the RPF found itself.
On the one hand were its efforts to validate its brand of politics.
On the other, is a pushback from traditional forces of control – including the international NGOs and media, academia, and the like – that were not familiar with whatever the RPF was doing and, instead, choosing to view its rejection of (foreign) models they easily identify with as a display of unmitigated arrogance.
A key outcome of this confrontation was the conflating of political criticism with genocide denial. Therefore, this unholy alliance that uncharacteristically extended sympathy to perpetrators did not end with NGOs. It was extended to the rest of the traditional custodians of moral conscience. Where the sympathies of the church lay was well-established; it was already difficult to separate the institution of the church from the infrastructure of genocide.
It didn’t get any better. This alliance would broaden to include professions whose claims to being moral agents is often taken on face value, rarely scrutinized: the media, academia, human rights groups. These were ferocious in their use of the bully pulpit offered by their professions.
Together, they wreaked havoc. They distorted facts, such as reducing the number of victims. They deployed language and terminology that belittled survivors, such as insistence that it is the “Rwandan genocide.” They mocked survivors trying to reconcile with their abusers, dismissing their efforts as not being genuine.
Moreover, they advanced theories, such as whether a genocide would have happened had the plane not been shot down, as if to say that there is any basis at all to justify genocide. In all, they invariably placed the burden of proof on survivors rather than on perpetrators. In so doing, they assaulted the memory of victims and mocked the resilience of survivors.
Significantly, the collusion – by the traditional custodians of moral conscience – against the memory of genocide meant that there was no one left to scrutinize their ability to abuse the bully pulpit that their membership to this status affords them and to uncover the hidden interests thereof.
Perpetrators as ‘moral agents’
Naturally, this alliance emboldened the deniers. They enjoined themselves to the custodians of moral conscience and similarly advanced theirs – genocide denial – as a moral cause. They could evade accountability and cleanse their conscience with the burden of the past. In other words, they found that they could shed off the shame of genocide without having to account for their actions.
The sympathy for perpetrators was also extended to the convicts. Judge Theodor Meron of the ICTR residual mechanism considered the convictions of genocide masterminds to be too harsh, ordering a reduction of sentences and freeing others.
One of the beneficiaries of this early release on the mercy of “good conduct” while in custody is Ferdinand Nahimana, a genocide mastermind whose writings were essential in shaping the intellectual basis for genocide and, on the eve of his release from prison, has published a book that is being promoted within the circles of the traditional custodians of moral conscience as some kind of masterpiece.
Similarly, the ICTR convicts in Mali could go on television to call for solidarity, along with a promise that “soon” they would retake state power and to frame the act as freedom of expression and, more importantly, their quest for state power as a legitimate pursuit – regardless of what this would mean for the physical and emotional security of genocide survivors.
It is true that some individuals who belong to academia, to NGO circles, or the media have been consistent in their fight against genocide denial. Indeed, their role in advocating for survivors to bring to book some genocide perpetrators is consistent with the call of duty of the custodians of moral conscience. However, the irony is that these have been the exception rather than the rule.
As such, genocide’s unlikely alliance has unprecedented solidary with perpetrators whom it has for twenty-five years shielded from having to answer for the killings; all the while, it has placed survivors in the dock having to answer for why they survived.
By politicizing genocide the traditional custodians of moral conscience have undermined soul searching around the genocide and the development of a collective consciousness to deter recurrence.
This dereliction of moral duty – withdrawing solidarity for genocide survivors and reserving it for perpetrators – unwittingly assured that the only guarantor against recurrence of genocide is the RPF. The latter has – to the chagrin of the very traditional forces – framed this in existential terms.
These are history’s ironies.