Twenty-five years ago, the international community stood by and watched as genocide unfolded in Rwanda, devastating a country and leaving lasting scars.
Neighbour turned upon neighbour in 100 days of bloodshed, fuelled by a campaign demonizing members of the Tutsi minority. The campaign used radio broadcasts to spread ethnic hatred and incitement to murder.
Between the start of the genocide on April 7 1994 and the end of the massacres in July the same year, around 800 000 people were killed.
Thousands of people were tortured, raped and subjected to other forms of sexual violence.
The victims were primarily Tutsi who had been singled out for elimination, as well as Hutu opposed to the genocide and the forces that directed it.
Though the immediate catalyst for the killings was the apparent shooting down of the then president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane over Kigali on the night of April 6, the genocide had been a long time in the planning.
For years, Hutu leaders and hardliners fanned the flames of existing ethnic tensions in a pattern that has become all too familiar around the world — the scapegoating of one group in society by another. They went beyond populist propaganda and rhetoric to provide training and distributed arms to their supporters, including the Interahamwe militia.
Despite the scale of the atrocities committed, the international community failed to intervene. Two weeks into the genocide, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the UN Security Council voted to reduce the number of peacekeepers in Rwanda rather than step up efforts to end the massacres.
Only after the Rwandan Patriotic Front had taken control of the country, did the world’s leaders finally find their voices and say: “Never again”.
And yet, too often on this most painful anniversary have my colleagues and I paused to take stock and been confronted with the shameful reality that the world has not learned the lessons of the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
In the 25 years since the genocide, the world has witnessed countless crimes under international law as well as human rights violations, often fuelled by the same politics of demonisation and tactics of exclusion. When domestic institutions fail to respect the rule of law and human rights, we expect our global systems to step in, but often they have not been strong enough to stop atrocities.
In August 2017, Myanmar’s military launched a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing on the predominantly Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine state, following decades of state-sponsored discrimination and persecution against them. As villages were burned to the ground, women and children raped and thousands killed, more than 720 000 people fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
And just last month, the horrific attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, reminded us of the lethal danger of allowing the politics of demonization go unchecked.
But we can also learn important lessons from that appalling tragedy. New Zealand’s response, at the political and community level, has equally reminded us of the transformative power of standing up collectively and refusing to be cowed by a hateful ideology.
On this terrible anniversary, we stand in solidarity with the victims, their families and the survivors of the genocide in their sorrow.
But if we truly want to honour the memories of those killed in the genocide in Rwanda, we must hold our leaders accountable and ensure that they apply the lessons from the failure to stop the genocide – both in domestic political discourse and in their international engagements. We must demand an end to the divisive politics of “us versus them”.
“Never again” should mean never again.
Joan Nyanyuki is Amnesty International’s Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes region.