Lessons of the Rwandan Genocide for the International Community

Twenty years ago, Rwanda’s ethnic tensions descended into a brutal, deadly genocide which took 800,000 lives in less 100 days. The story we tell today is one of great resilience and ability to overcome even the deepest traumas – in the 20 years since the genocide, much has been researched, written, discussed and analyzed about both the capacity of ordinary people to do evil, and the ability to forgive even the most vicious crimes.

What’s unfolded since the genocide is also an important exercise in seeking justice, whether through the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, or the less formal local gacaca courts, which focused on reconciliation, rather than punishment. The Rwandan genocide, and the international community’s lack of response to it, have come to influence the course of history in many ways. The consequences of the events that took place in Rwanda in the spring of 1994 continue to ripple through the region today: instability and a protracted conflict in the Great Lakes region, and a country still reeling from the deep wounds of the genocide. As we recall these events, it is important to remember the every day acts of bravery and valor that not only saved lives, but also gave people the strength to carry on and continue to hope.

Today, it is equally important to remember that the international community failed to prevent, and then respond to, the atrocities in Rwanda. That the “responsibility to protect” and a strong sense of “never again” were supposed to guide our actions and ensure that this would, indeed, never again happen. And while it is imperative to remember what happened in Rwanda, to honor the survivors and the great strides made in Rwanda – economically and politically, in spite of Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s mixed legacy – it is also our collective duty to ensure that the international community does not stand by while similar events unfold.

On UN Dispatch, we have been covering the situation in the Central African Republic, where over the course of the past year, inter-ethnic violence has taken thousands upon thousands of lives. There is a wealth of information and evidence that suggests that the conflict in the CAR could topple into mass scale violence – since December 2013, it has consistently felt like the country is one – predictable – disaster away from all out war. In spite of the clear warning signs, the international community is dragging its feet. As the EU begins to roll out its 1,000-strong peacekeeping force in the CAR – delayed for weeks due to difficulties securing troops and equipment from member nations – Chad recently announced it was removing its 800+ soldier contingent from the AU force. Meanwhile, the UN is set to authorize a peacekeeping mission for CAR, but it will likely be several months before this force is able to deploy.

“The international community failed the people of Rwanda 20 years ago. And we are at risk of not doing enough for the people of the CAR today,” Ban Ki-moon told the CAR’s transitional assembly in Bangui, from where he was marking the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. It is a powerful signal to the international community that Ban Ki-moon chose to visit the CAR for the first time in 2014 on the anniversary of the genocide – his message was clear and categorical: if we do not act decisively, we could bear witness to another Rwanda.

Further reading: For a well-curated list of articles on the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, check out Prof. Laura Seay’s selection of the best Rwanda +20 reads.

Photo credit: DFID UK photostream