The UK and US Attitude on Genocide Denial Reminiscent of 1994 Indifference

It is astonishing to realise that two powerful UN states -- the UK and US – remain at odds with the word genocide -- and continue themselves to contribute to the denial campaign the Security Council seeks to outlaw.

Eight years ago, as the 20th commemoration of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi was underway many fine words were spoken in the UN Security Council about ‘lessons learned’ although no one ever articulated exactly what those lessons were. That year the Council did however pass a unanimous resolution to try to compel governments to outlaw the denial of the genocide that was increasingly widespread. In Security Council Resolution 2150, dated April 16, 2014, it was determined as follows: ‘The Council condemned without reservation any denial of this Genocide, and urged Member States to develop educational programs that will inculcate future generations with the lessons of the Genocide to help to prevent future genocides”.

Yet while voting for this resolution in the Council, member states continue today to not only allow the presence of alleged genocidaires on their soil but are seemingly happy to tolerate a campaign of denial of this genocide that is spread in newspapers, is repeated in magazines, articles, in books, and in social media. While member states eagerly voted for Resolution 2150 condemning denial, this pernicious denial campaign continues today unchallenged by governments, and is waged with some success by the genocide perpetrators, their acolytes, and supporters. With their contempt for factual evidence, these people have tried to alter the facts, diminish the death toll, claim the killing was in self-defense, and blame the victims for their fate. The deniers talk of ‘mutual violence’ and try to explain the huge number of dead as the result of ‘inter-ethnic war’. The deniers of this genocide claim that the killing of Tutsi was a response to the fear and chaos of war and that there was no central planning for any of the massacres. The génocidaires continue to maintain that the mass murder of Tutsi people resulted from a ‘spontaneous uprising’ by an angry population. They argue there was no genocide of the Tutsi because lacking any planning or preparation, the intent to destroy a human group, as required by the 1948 Genocide Convention was lacking. Without the required intent to destroy, the Genocide Convention did not apply. 

The question of intent is integral to the crime. In the Genocide Convention, the wording reads, ‘the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. With no intent, the deniers argue, with no conspiracy or plan, the Genocide Convention was not applicable. The deniers conveniently forget that the Genocide Convention enshrines the realisation that state-sanctioned racist policies against specific groups inevitably leads to mass slaughter, and that the victims of genocide are chosen purely because they are members of the target group.

With the 28th commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsi under way, it is worth recalling that it is not only the deniers and their supporters who have a problem with the definition of the word genocide in relation to Rwanda. It is astonishing to realise that two powerful UN states — the UK and US – remain at odds with the word genocide — and continue themselves to contribute to the denial campaign the Council seeks to outlaw.

Their attitude is reminiscent of that on display in April 1994, when as the bodies piled up in Rwanda, these two permanent members of the UN Security Council had avoided the use of the word genocide in Council meetings, and in the face of clear evidence had argued that nothing – they thought – could be done. In an eight-hour debate in the Council in late April, they had refused to recognise that a genocide reminiscent of the Nazi Holocaust was under way. In the Council, the UK diplomats had argued that the use of the word genocide in relation to what was happening in Rwanda was inflammatory and its use would be “unhelpful”.

All these years later, and nothing has changed, and the same attitude remains. The UK and US continue to express reservations about the word genocide in relation to Rwanda, failing to understand its meaning in relation to what really took place.

Two years ago, in April 2020, in a landmark resolution (74/273), adopted by consensus by member states in the General Assembly, the wording to enshrine an international day to commemorate the victims of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi was changed. It was decided henceforth the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide would become more specific, and 7 April became a day to commemorate the genocide “against the Tutsi” in Rwanda.

Two members states objected. The governments of the UK and US would have none of it. In letters to the president of the General Assembly, they complained about the phrase “genocide against the Tutsi”. The US Ambassador Kelly Craft said that the phrase failed to capture “the magnitude” of the violence against “other groups” and left “an incomplete picture of this dark history”.  In her letter, she wrote: “Hutus and others were killed during the genocide……including those murdered for their opposition to the atrocities that were being committed”.

For the UK, a letter from the Chargé d’Affaires, Jonathan Allen, complained about the “framing of the genocide purely as the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi” seemingly hinting at two genocides in a clear distortion of the historical facts. One sentence avoided the word genocide altogether: “The UK remembers the tragic events in April 1994 and is firmly committed to ensuring that such atrocities never happen again”.

While both the UK and the US pointed to other victims, these people were not killed in a genocide. Only one group was the target of genocidal extermination. Furthermore, the US and UK were ignoring the fact that the UN itself had officially recognized the genocide, when in November 1994 the Security Council had voted to establish a tribunal to prosecute those responsible, the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).  Indeed, this tribunal’s Appeals Chamber later affirmed that genocide committed against the Tutsi was “beyond any dispute and not requiring any proof”. 

The letters of complaint about the official designation that were sent to the General Assembly President from the UK and US, unusually for internal UN correspondence, found interest from outside the Secretariat building in New York. The letters were soon circulating widely among genocide deniers and their supporters who claimed that the misgivings expressed by these two powerful states showed that at the highest levels there was doubt about what they call the “official narrative”. The deniers used the letters to bolster their confused arguments of moral equivalence – repeating the nonsensical idea that ‘all sides’ were guilty of genocide in a bloody civil war and the killing of Tutsi had resulted from a spontaneous uprising. 

These claims echoed those of the génocidaires themselves who in their trials at the ICTR when professing their innocence of any crime had claimed that in 1994 a genocide of Hutu had happened and that this had been the subject of an international cover-up. This is one of the oldest claims in the Hutu Power disinformation handbook and no more than a smokescreen to distract foreign attention from the genocide of the Tutsi. Today, the Hutu Power movement still tries to prove that each ‘side’ was as murderous as the other. In fact, at the very outset, it was the genocidaires themselves who killed Hutu when, as their attempted elimination of Tutsi got under way, they had systematically eliminated the political opposition, killing all those who stood against their racist anti-Tutsi ideology.

For those who fought so hard to liberate their country from the genocidal forces twenty-eight years ago, the letters sent to the General Assembly by the US and UK were horribly reminiscent of the attitudes on display in the Security Council as the crime progressed in 1994.  In the Council, these two permanent members had fixated on the civil war taking place simultaneously with the genocide of the Tutsi and their only action had been to call for a ceasefire. As one of the non-permanent members told the Council at the time, this was like wanting Hitler to reach a ceasefire with the Jews of Europe who were being exterminated in vast concentrated camps.

The continuing refusal of the US and UK to officially recognise the designation agreed by all other UN members states is an example of how powerful states profess to abide by human rights treaties, but in reality, ignore them for reasons known only to themselves.

We should never forget that the facts that they challenge are capable of immediate verification. There is overwhelming evidence the extermination of the Tutsi had been premeditated and planned well in advance and that this was a clear and incontrovertible case of genocide. It is time the UK and US governments recognised that fact.

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