Every year in April…

Every year in April, the international community recalls the genocide in Rwanda and the failure to intervene. This year, on the 20th anniversary of the genocide, we did the same in several sites and countries around the world. Here at the University of Minnesota, we held a three day-long event that brought together practitioners, scholars, activists and K-12 educators. We asked ourselves what we learned from the Rwandan experience and how these lessons can be used to prevent and intervene in future atrocities. I personally think the world has learned very little from the genocide in Rwanda and that we have failed to efficiently put to use our limited knowledge to prevent other atrocities.

Over the last several months, I have highlighted the on-going atrocities in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) and South Sudan and the abject failure of the UN, African Union (AU), French and other foreign troops in stopping these two atrocities. In that time things have only gotten worse in both countries. Instead of recognizing these failures we have been accosted by reporting that seems hell bent on reminding us of the fact that lessons have been learned. This can be seen in online news organizations such as Think Progress, who thought it more important to remind us that the U.S. had prevented “another Rwanda” and the New York Times reminding us that we are allowing ‘another Rwanda’ in CAR.

The on-going atrocities in South Sudan presents more damning evidence against the assertion that the international community has learned from Rwanda. Last week in Bentiu town the atrocities reached a new low. Rebels stormed the town, killing and pillaging as they went through it. The target group appeared to be anyone that was not from the Nuer community. As the government and rebels trade accusation as to who is responsible, the U.S. government again seems to be twiddling its thumbs and merely called the atrocity in Bentiu an abomination.

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), like the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), has strongly condemned “the use of Radio Bentiu FM by some individuals associated with the opposition to broadcast hate speech,” and tried to evacuate as many civilian as it could. What started as a rebellion against the government is now taking a more ghastly turn as the AU and UN debate what to do and how to do it. Perhaps what is even more instructive about this particular atrocity is the fact that the rebels used FM Radio to order the attacks. This in itself should send chills down our spines but also perhaps push the UN and AU to act more decisively.

So have we learned anything from Rwanda? Unfortunately there is no clear answer to this question. From where I sit though, I believe we have learned nothing at all. If we had, I strongly believe we would stop calling every other atrocity ‘another Rwanda’ and instead work on nipping them in the bud. For the dead in the town of Bentiu it will be hard to convince their families that Rwanda has taught us anything, seeing as the order to attack was given on the radio. For the Muslims being evacuated from CAR and for all those who have died and been maimed there, how do we look them in the eye and say “yes, Rwanda did teach us some useful lessons that we have applied in CAR.”

The genocide in Rwanda happened, we let it happen, we need to stop focusing on trying to correct that mistake and focus instead on the current atrocities. This does not mean that the similarities in how the international community and the UN have behaved can be ignored, nor should they. We should think, however, very critically about the effect this has for the conflict. Lest we forget, for most people, Rwanda was a conflict that was particularly based on ethnicity and not political machinations or the fall of commodity prices in the global market. What we have in CAR and South Sudan is not and never was based on ethnicity. Both were a struggle for political power between the government and rebels groups that have now coalesced around religion and ethnicity respectively. These conflicts and related massacres are in no way “another Rwanda” and talking about them as such misses the point of the atrocities.

Wahutu Siguru is the 2013 Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa. 

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