By Elliott Goat
Opening the debate that took place at the Frontline Club on 9th April to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Mukesh Kapila, former humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, claimed that the legacy of this experience is to to make us all Rwandans, “because a crime against humanity in one place becomes a crime against all humanity everywhere.”
His Excellency Williams Nkurunziza, High Commissioner of the Republic of Rwanda to the United Kingdom, began by assessing the strides made over the last 20 years.
“By every measure of assessment, if you look at Rwanda – the basket case of 1994 has become the model state of 2014.”
The success and effectiveness of this transformation can be attributed, according to Nkurunziza, to three choices made by President Kagame and the government directly after the genocide. To “chose to be together” by resisting the potential for victims and perpetrators, forced to live together in the aftermath of genocide, to engage in a cycle of retribution. “To chose to be accountable”, by ensuring a “new inclusive political dispensation… where a winner cannot take all [and] where even the losers must participate in the process of governance to ensure all Rwandans must be inheritors of the mess that was left in 1994”. Finally, Nkurunziza cited the importance of thinking beyond the traditional paradigm, specifically in the engagement of women as equal participants in the process of governance.
Most importantly it is this path of restorative justice over punitive justice which has enabled the country to move towards reconciliation at such pace.
David Belton, who experienced the genocide first hand whilst reporting for the BBC, did not question this assessment of the government’s, but rather “ where one’s identity, where one’s past, one’s memories exist in this new paradigm.” For Belton, it becomes a question of how one deals with the past and forge a new identity for the future within this “post-trauma society”.
For Eric Murangwa Eugene, who survived the genocide, it is the three decades leading up to 1994, in which the political establishment enforced the idea of difference and the notion of ‘the enemy within’, which means that the process of reconciliation becomes a much longer process.
Kapila elaborated on this by stating that the success of the reconciliation process was based on the fact that a determination “not to hide the truth” was not viewed just in a psychological sense, but through a political and institutional approach,
“Reconciliation succeeded because it wasn’t just a sentimental thing, there was a very strong sense of justice and truth-telling that went along with it. There is a question of whether reconciliation can be forced? One has to say the right thing before it becomes internalised and then doing the right thing follows.”
When questioned over why it is the West that should be asked to carry the burden of moral responsibility for international inventions, Kapila remarked that the lessons learned show that “nobody saved Rwanda… outside people cannot save these things. The real resistance comes from within. The role of the international community is to make sure we don’t stand in the way. And when we do intervene we have to make sure there is proper accountability”. He cited specifically Kofi Annan’s sanitisation of reports transmitted to the UN security council.
To this Belton interjected, instead arguing that the experience of Rwanda proves that the international community could and should have intervened very quickly and effectively with as little as 5000 UN peacekeeping troops.
“It is a question of ‘just cause’, as defined by Tony Blair in 1999, as to whether you had the moral right, whether you could do it militarily, whether you are in for the long term…”
“The critical thing is that you have to have transparency, which enables everyone to have a better understanding about who is shaping events. I think we are at a place now, where you see the connivance by the internal community for what it is… as cowardice and failure.”
Returning to a question of accountability and responsibility, Ambassador Nkurunziza stated that “fixing Rwanda’s problems should be left to Rwandans… however, that does not absolve the international community.”
“[The genocide] didn’t happen because people didn’t know about it… it happened because people didn’t care.” He went on to emphasise the need for dialogue between the West and Rwanda.
For Belton, however, while this new dialogue is essential it should not be at the expense of denying the past, or the historical identities that have shaped Rwanda.
“You need space for people to develop their own narratives, to develop the confidence to be able to say I am Rwandan and I am also a Tutsi. Can they develop their own stories, their own histories which are not contaminated – which can lead to the shared value system that enables them to make choices about who they want to be rather than being told what to be?”
Watch or listen to the event here: