Politico MagazineForgetting the Lessons of Genocide
By DAVID KAMPF
March 31, 2014
Twenty years ago, the plane carrying the president of Rwanda was shot down, unleashing one of the deadliest exterminations of the last century. More than 800,000 Rwandans lost their lives in three short months — with only a little more than one in four Tutsis surviving the violence largely perpetrated by the Hutu majority.
It was the tragedy that was supposed to collectively shame humanity to never let anything similar happen again. But what the world learned in the wake of the genocide is being ignored today as countries turn a blind eye to brewing conflicts and humanitarian crises or deflect responsibility to get involved.
There were two fundamental lessons of the Rwandan genocide. First, the warning signs of ethnic, religious or political and economic turmoil must be dealt with before tensions explode. Inaction leads to greater losses in lives and dollars.
Second, the international community has a moral obligation to intervene to prevent massive human suffering even when the national security interests are neither obvious nor immediate. The United States and other powers had the ability and the facts at hand to protect civilians and stop the systematic killing in Rwanda, they just chose not to.
Without question, Rwanda has proved how it has learned many of the lessons of its own history. Despite the odds, the country has gone a long way in solidifying the economic stability needed to forestall future bloodletting. The economy is nearly 10 times larger than it was during the genocide, and the World Bank ranks it second in all of Africa in ease of doing business.
This transformation is palpable when you first set foot in Rwanda. I haven’t met a visitor in Kigali, the country’s gleaming capital, who doesn’t comment on how clean the roads are or how rapidly new high-rises and fancy restaurants are popping up. And on top of this, Rwanda has the highest proportion of female parliamentarians in the world and is a major contributor to peacekeeping operations on the continent, helping to prevent the next calamity.
But underneath this rosy exterior, Rwanda hasn’t done enough. Its strongman rule is notorious for its lack of freedom, muzzling of the press, isolation of political opponents and meddling across its border in Congo, home of the deadliest conflict since World War II. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions in Rwanda linger perpetually at risk of being exploited for personal gain. No one knows what will happen when President Paul Kagame, who is only 56, eventually goes.
For its part, the international community has selectively failed to remember what it should have learned, seemingly forgetting the main teachings from Rwanda.
Donors, to their credit, poured money into the country to make amends for the world’s neglect and deserve applause for helping to lift millions out of poverty, improve the health of mothers and children and increase life spans.David Kampf is director of communications at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and previously lived in Rwanda, where he worked on development projects.
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