Rwanda is back in the news headlines this month as the world unites to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the country’s genocide. A list of who’s who in the world of international affairs and human rights landed in Kigali earlier in April to take part in an official ceremony to honor the victims of those who lost their lives needlessly in 1994.
Heads of state, diplomats, journalists and human rights groups gathered with the hope that lessons from the Rwanda genocide can usher in a new era in which the international community starts to do more prevention rather than commemoration. The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, reminded everyone “The blood spilled for 100 days. Twenty years later, the tears still flow.”
Many pessimists will repeat the narrative that nothing has changed since more than 800,000 people perished over a 100 day time span two decades ago. Some will point to Syria or to the Central African Republic to buttress their argument. However, if you stand back and look at the bigger picture, it is difficult not to see larger patterns of progress.
Take for example that the United Nations now has an office working full time on the prevention of genocide, which plays an important role in advising the UN Secretary General, who in turn can pressure national governments to provide more support to the organization’s specialized agencies and peacekeeping missions.
The Rwandan genocide also spurred new thinking in how the international community must rethink the notion of national sovereignty when mass atrocity crimes are looming. An answer to this problem was the introduction of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which all countries seated at the UN endorsed in 2005. Invoked for the first time by the UN Security Council in 2011 to justify strong measures be taken to protect civilians in Libya, more than 30 national governments now have “R2P” focal points, meaning capacity and political will are being built where they did not exist before.
Another important development is that a global legal system to end impunity for those who commit atrocities is now in place. The International Criminal Court might not be perfect but by prosecuting former heads of state for crimes against humanity and indicting the current President of Sudan for the crime of genocide in Darfur, a strong message has been sent to those who unleash atrocities against their own people.
Equally astounding has been the emergence of a more powerful global civil society that is dedicated to building a community of commitment focused on preventing atrocities. In 1994 only a few human rights organizations, led by Human Rights Watch, tried to persuade the international community to halt the Rwandan genocide. Unfortunately they were not successful in mobilizing the public and making more “noise”, which allowed political leaders to sit in the shadows, feign ignorance of the atrocities and casually dismiss their countries’ legal responsibility, as signatories of the Genocide Convention, to enforce international law.
Today, in contrast, hundreds of NGOs and think tanks in the West and the Global South are creating innovative projects and strategies to make “never again” a reality. For example, the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) has heeded the words of the late Nelson Mandela who once said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” By launching the world’s first professional training program for the prevention of mass atrocities, new skills and knowledge are being imparted on the next generation of human rights leaders from inside and outside of government.
MIGS has also recognized that advances in technology and social media also provide important new tools that can be used by all actors in the atrocity prevention field. To help policy makers and human rights advocates, the Digital Mass Atrocity Prevention Lab was recently formed to begin studying how genocidal ideologies can be fought online and how technologies can be harnessed to document human right abuses for eventual prosecution.
Samantha Power, the current U.S. Ambassador to the UN recently tweeted “Come far since 1994 with stronger peacekeepers, ICC, R2P, accountability tools, NGO activism—but Syria/DPRK/CAR/SSudan show we’ve far to go.”
Yes, important steps have been made since the Rwandan genocide. But if we are to continue this trajectory of progress, two important things need to happen. First, philanthropists and governments need to support those human rights groups who are on the front lines of innovative thinking. Second, increased engagement and dialogue between civil society and national governments needs to be ramped up. The goal of achieving innovation at the institutional levels of government must be a central focus of “NGO activism”. The development of new mechanisms, capacities and structures to enforce international law will save more lives than empty rhetoric. The Obama administration has led the way with the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board within the White House. If other countries emulate Washington, the prevention of future genocides might actually become a reality.
Kyle Matthews is the Senior Deputy Director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University and a Fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. His work focuses on human rights, international security, the Responsibility to Protect, global threats, and social media and technology. He works closely with the Canadian All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and has advised Members of Parliament on issues related to international peace and security. He previously worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where he was posted to the Southern Caucasus (Tbilisi), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa) and Switzerland (Geneva). Prior to that he worked for CARE Canada in Albania and later at its headquarters in Ottawa, where he managed various humanitarian response initiatives and peace-building projects in Afghanistan, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. In 2011 he joined the New Leaders program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is a member of the University Club of Montreal, the Montreal Press Club, the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations and the Federal Idea, a think tank devoted to federalism. He is currently the President of the Canadian International Council's Montreal branch. He blogs on international affairs for Global News and for the Canadian International Council’s website opencanada.org.
Feature photo, "Belgium Peacekeepers Memorial in Rwanda" by Marie Lamensch, Institute for European Studies.