Rwanda: Genocide Archives Released By HRW


Human Rights Watch announced that it is releasing a series of archives highlighting the extraordinary efforts of human rights defenders in Rwanda and abroad, to warn about the planned 1994 genocide and attempt to stop the killings. The documents painfully illustrate leading international actors’ refusal to acknowledge the slaughter of more than half a million people and act to end it.

A significant number of individuals responsible for the genocide, including former high-level government officials and other key figures behind the massacres, have since been brought to justice, and more than a dozen prosecutions of genocide suspects are being conducted in domestic courts across Europe under the principle of universal jurisdiction. And yet, in recent years, several high-level alleged genocide masterminds have died, or, in the case of one alleged planner, been declared unfit to stand trial, highlighting the urgent need to continue the quest to deliver justice.

“The genocide in Rwanda remains a stain on our collective conscience and, 30 years later, lessons can still be drawn from the actions – or lack thereof – of world leaders in the face of ongoing atrocities,” said Tirana Hassan, executive director at Human Rights Watch. “There is an urgent need to expedite the pursuit of justice to ensure that the remaining architects of the genocide are held to account before it is too late.”

On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali. The crash marked the beginning of three months of ethnic killings across Rwanda on an unprecedented scale.

Hutu political and military extremists orchestrated the killing of approximately three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population, leaving more than half a million people dead. Many Hutu who attempted to hide or protect Tutsi, as well as those who opposed the genocide, were also killed.

In mid-July 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a predominantly Tutsi rebel group based in Uganda that had been fighting to overthrow the Rwandan government since 1990, took over the country and ended the genocide. Its troops killed thousands of predominantly Hutu civilians, though the scale and nature of these killings were not comparable to the genocide.

Human Rights Watch documented the genocide and the RPF’s 1994 crimes in detail. Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch for almost two decades, published the authoritative account of the Rwandan genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” and documented the international community’s indifference and failure to act.

Despite repeated warnings by Rwandan and international human rights organizations, diplomats, United Nations staff, and others that a genocide was being planned in the period leading up to April 1994, governments and intergovernmental bodies, including the UN and the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union), failed to act to prevent the genocide as it unfolded. The UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda withdrew most of its troops at the height of the massacres, leaving the Rwandan civilian population defenseless.

Thirty years later, Human Rights Watch is releasing part of its archives from March 1993 to December 1994. The documents and a chronology of actions during this period illustrate the organization and its allies’ extensive advocacy efforts, led by Alison Des Forges, first to try to prevent, and then to stop, the killings. The chronology does not purport to be a comprehensive compilation of all actions undertaken by civil society organizations and others in 1993 and 1994. The contents are rather some of what remained in Human Rights Watch’s possession from a pre-internet period after the unexpected death of Des Forges in 2009 in a plane crash in the US, and which the organization considers to be of public interest.

Stopping the leaders and the killers in Rwanda would have required military force, but in the early stages, a relatively small one. A rapid and efficient international intervention could have succeeded in halting the genocide and preventing some of the worst killings. The archives illustrate how international leaders not only rejected this course, but also declined for weeks to use their political and moral authority to challenge the legitimacy of the genocidal government. Strategy documents, statements, and letters show that international leaders at the time refused to declare that a government that was exterminating its citizens would never receive international assistance and did nothing to silence radio programs that incited Rwandans to slaughter. Such simple measures could have sapped the strength of the authorities bent on mass murder and encouraged Rwandan resistance to the extermination campaign.

On May 10, 1994, Des Forges wrote a letter to then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights José Ayala Lasso, informing him that the regime committing genocide was cognizant of how it was perceived internationally and that, the day before his planned visit to Rwanda, “the national committee of the Interahamwe militia […] broadcast a communique calling on their members to stop killing Tutsi and members of the political opposition. They also asked them to help stop killings by those who were not members of their groups.”

The documents shed light on the vital role played by human rights defenders in preventing atrocities. From the outset, Human Rights Watch and several others expressed alarm at the targeting of human rights activists in Rwanda.

In the months and years that followed, as the horror of the genocide sank in, “never again” became a common refrain. A number of world leaders acknowledged, and some apologized for, their failure to halt the genocide. It was also one of the triggers of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine, which governments adopted in 2005 to protect people facing mass atrocities.

Overwhelming guilt at their individual and collective failure to stop the genocide has been a defining factor in many governments’ foreign policy toward Rwanda since that time. It continues to color international perceptions of and reactions to events in Rwanda and in the Great Lakes region, especially in relation to Rwanda’s human rights record in the 30 years since the genocide and its repeated incursions into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwanda has supported Congolese armed groups responsible for killings of civilians, rape, and other grave human rights violations.

The majority of genocide related prosecutions have taken place in Rwandan courts. Others have occurred before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) or domestic courts across Europe and North America.

Rwanda’s community-based gacaca courts completed their work in 2012; the ICTR formally closed in 2015, handing over a number of functions to a residual mechanism. After years of delays, since 2001, scores of genocide suspects have been investigated, arrested, or prosecuted under the principle of universal jurisdiction in France, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other European and North American countries.

The 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide provides an opportune and urgent moment to take stock of progress, both at national and international levels, in holding to account suspects who planned, ordered, and carried out these horrific crimes. It is all the more urgent to do so, and to accelerate efforts to prosecute remaining genocide suspects, as several high-profile planners and masterminds of the genocide have already died and one – Félicien Kabuga – was declared unfit to stand trial.

“An enduring lesson from the genocide is the international community’s failure to take heed of the clear signs that preparations for mass atrocities were underway – including warnings from human rights defenders who put their lives on the line to sound the alarm,” Hassan said. “Despite the passage of time, victims deserve to see those responsible for genocide and other crimes arrested and prosecuted in fair and credible trials.”

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