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Lessons for Today from the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda

“Man’s inhumanity to man is not only perpetrated by the vitriolic actions of those who are bad. It is also perpetrated by the vitiating inaction of those who are good.” –Martin Luther King Jr.


Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Professor Zachary D. Kaufman’s presentation on Lessons for Today from the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda hosted by the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. Among the many takeaways highlighted by Professor Kaufman and drawn from Lessons from Rwanda: Post-Genocide Law and Policy were ten simple yet profound lessons:


Lesson #1: Hate speech is dangerous.


To illustrate the role that hate speech played in the Rwandan genocide, Professor Kaufman discussed multiple forms of propaganda, such as Kangura, Radio Rwanda, and RTLM “hate radio.” He concludes that we must have limits, including with respect to social media, and further asserts that social media must do a better job of combatting hate speech and disinformation.


Lesson #2: Atrocity prevention is possible.


Professor Kaufman next discussed the importance of laws that seek to impact atrocity prevention by way of two examples: first, the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which “prevents acts of genocide and other atrocity crimes, which threaten national and international security, by enhancing United States Government capacities to prevent, mitigate, and respond to such crises;” and second, the Syrian War Crimes Accountability Act (enacted as section 1232 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019), which “require a report on, and to authorize technical assistance for, accountability for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Syria.” Using recommendations and insights from United States Law and Policy on Transitional Justice: Principles, Politics, and Pragmatics, Professor Kaufman served as a lead architect on both pieces of legislation while working as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, and later published Legislating Atrocity Prevention, which describes and analyzes such laws.


Lesson #3: Transitional justice is essential.


In United States Law and Policy on Transitional Justice: Principles, Politics, and Pragmatics, Professor Kaufman defines transitional justice as the “process and objectives of societies addressing past or ongoing atrocities and other serious human rights violations through judicial and nonjudicial mechanisms.” To illustrate its importance by way of a few examples, he discussed the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR); prosecution by foreign courts and Rwanda’s ordinary courts, the latter of which abolished the death penalty and paved the way for the ICTR to transfer cases to Rwanda; and the establishment of the Gacaca courts, which addressed a backlog of genocide cases and tried nearly 2 million cases during their ten years of operation. While noting varied opinions as to whether the ICTR succeeded in fulfilling its mission, he concludes that transitional justice work remains far from complete.


Lesson #4: Sexual abuse is rampant.


In discussing various forms of sexual abuse and the rampant objectification of women and girls during the Rwandan genocide and still today, Professor Kaufman deemed sexual abuse a tool for violence and concluded we must do more to prevent such abuses. He further suggests, as detailed in Protectors of Predators or Prey: Bystanders and Upstanders Amid Sexual Crimes, that an important and necessary piece of the solution lies in a societal transition from bystanderism to upstanderism.


Lesson #5: Women’s representation is crucial.


Professor Kaufman called attention to the many benefits of women’s political leadership in Rwanda and elsewhere, concluding that, to foster gender equality, we must support greater roles for women in government.


Lesson #6: Genocide education is necessary.


Professor Kaufman also touched on Dr. Gregory H. Stanton’s ten stages of genocide, noting the strong and continued presence of denial as among the indicators of future massacres and concluding that the need for genocide education is critical and ongoing.


Lesson #7: Political will is vital.


Professor Kaufman next called attention to the political will of the Tutsi during the Rwandan genocide, reminding us, regretfully, that the world abandoned them in their time of need. With reference to the continued importance of the R2P doctrine, he concludes that, as in Rwanda, conscientious citizens must demand action to effectively prevent future crises.


Lesson #8: Supporting survivors is fundamental.


Professor Kaufman also touched on the multiple measures that must be taken to ensure the ongoing well-being of victims and their families, such as basic needs (food, water, housing), mental health care, and reparations. He notes that the problems faced by genocide survivors are often intergenerational and highlights the need for compassion and respect for the rights, dignity, and autonomy of all human beings.


Lesson #9: Upstanderism is imperative.


Professor Kaufman next reiterated the importance of upstanders, or, those who “speak or act in support of a cause… [or] intervene on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied” in past and modern day. As in Protectors of Predators or Prey: Bystanders and Upstanders Amid Sexual Crimes, he suggests that an increased awareness of what it means to become and remain an upstander is a critical part of the solution for change.


Lesson #10: “Never again” is unfulfilled.


Perhaps most powerful of all ten lessons was Professor Kaufman’s encapsulation of each of the aforementioned takeaways through his own perception of “never again.” While noting that the phrase is generally employed to infer that humanity will no longer stand for human rights violations or atrocities, and simultaneously noting that genocide has nonetheless persisted, he suggests that the typical interpretation of the phrase is insufficient and asks that we instead invoke “never again” in the following ways:


NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Take hate speech lightly.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Think preventing genocide impossible.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Allow impunity for genocide.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Fail to combat sexual abuse.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Decline to promote women’s political representation.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Disregard genocide education.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Permit political unwillingness to address genocide.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Neglect genocide survivors.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Be bystanders to genocide.

NEVER AGAIN MUST WE… Declare “never again” unless we remember—and implement—these lessons.

A big thanks to Professor Zachary D. Kaufman for the invitation to attend and these hugely important lessons! For more on this subject, check out the full talk, and see Lessons from Rwanda: Post-Genocide Law and Policy.


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