Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University Op-Ed Service
Tracie Sweeney, Editor
Distributed March 1996
Copyright ©1996 by Peter Uvin

April 6, 1994: Remembering the Genocide in Rwanda

By Peter Uvin
Peter Uvin is the Joukowsky Family Assistant Professor at the Alan Shawn Feinstein World Hunger Program at Brown University.

"What does it mean to be global citizens of an interdependent world? Can we be truly free and at peace with ourselves when our fellow world citizens suffer like those in Rwanda?"

Two years ago April 6, in the small African nation of Rwanda, the most brutal genocide since the Holocaust began. In the space of a few months, between half a million and a million persons were slaughtered - the equivalent of the entire population of Rhode Island. Almost all belonged to the minority Tutsi ethnic group.

People from various backgrounds have attempted to deny the reality of this genocide. The Clinton administration ordered its staff not to use the term, for the United States, like the entire international community, has been legally bound since World War II to intervene to stop genocide whenever it occurs. By avoiding the word, the administration felt it need not do anything, and the rest of the world followed suit. The international community withdrew its United Nations "peace-keeping" troops (just at the time they were most needed!), hastily evacuated its citizens, carefully avoided using the term "genocide," and looked the other way as hundreds of thousands of defenseless children, women and men were brutally slaughtered.

The perpetrators of the genocide, now refugees primarily in Zaire, admit the killings (although less than the generally accepted figures mentioned above), but argue they were done in self-defense against an invading rebel army, primarily composed of Tutsi. A civil war did indeed exist in 1990, with 5,000 to 10,000 rebels controlling a small part of the territory in the northeast. That war had reached a stalemate, and peace negotiations began in 1992. By the time the genocide began, the war was formally over: When President Habyarimana's plane was shot down the evening of April 6 - the act that set off the genocide - he was returning from the signing of a peace agreement in Tanzania. Moreover, the hundreds of thousands of people killed after April 7, 1994, were innocent civilians, not soldiers; they were far from the battlefield, in no way linked to the war.

Should we care about this genocide? After all, we are not responsible for it. We did not kill, nor did we encourage it. We probably felt sad for the people killed when we saw their dead, mangled bodies on our TV screens. But these people are far away, in a different world with different rules, and at the end of the day our worlds don't meet. Moreover, even if we had wanted to, wouldn't it have been impossible to stop the carnage?

Our worlds aren't really that far apart. In our coffee shops, we have in all likelihood had a warm cup of coffee made from excellent beans produced by Rwanda's farmers; in Pier 1 Import we may have bought a nice straw basket made by Rwanda's artisans. Thousands of Americans have traveled to the country: Peace Corps volunteers, researchers, tourists. American companies have exported their computers, food and machinery to the country.

Rwandans are no different from us. Like us, they love their children and seek a better future for them. Like many of us, they are Christians - children of the same God - just born in the wrong place.

The international community could have intervened and avoided a full-blown genocide. Together, the United States, France, and the United Nations had opportunities to act decisively, but they chose not to do so. France preferred to support the genocidal regime, a long-standing friend and ally of former President Mitterand; in the United States, indifference and fear of a repeat of Somalia led to a policy of looking the other way; in the case of the United Nations, self-censorship and misinformation led to passivity. Timely intervention could have averted hundreds of thousands of brutal deaths. To be sure, that would have been difficult and expensive - but much less expensive than feeding 2 million Rwandan refugees who fled after the genocide.

What does it mean to be global citizens of an interdependent world? Can we be truly free and at peace with ourselves when our fellow world citizens suffer like those in Rwanda? What shall our governments do? What can we do? There are no easy answers, but this April 6, two years after the genocide began, a moment of silence and reflection may be appropriate.