Twenty-five years ago, the international community stood by and watched as genocide in Rwanda devastated the country, leaving lasting scars. Neighbour turned on neighbour in 100 days of bloodshed, fuelled by a campaign demonising members of the Tutsi minority. Radio broadcasts were used 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, about 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.
Although the immediate catalyst for the killings was the shooting down of the plane carrying the president, dictator Juvénal Habyarimana, 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 ethnic tensions in a pattern that has become all too familiar around the world — the scapegoating of one group by another.
They went beyond populist propaganda and rhetoric to provide training and distributed arms to their supporters, including the Interahamwe militia — the youth wing of Habyarimana’s party, the National Republican Movement for Development, which was the only legal political party in the country at the time.
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 United Nations Security Council voted to reduce the number of peacekeepers in Rwanda rather than to step up efforts to end the massacres.
Only after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had taken control of the country — under President Paul Kagame, the armed wing of the RPF put an end to the genocide — did the world’s leaders 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. These are often fuelled by the same politics of demonisation and the 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, after decades of state-sponsored discrimination and persecution of the Rohingya. Villages were burned to the ground, women and children were raped and thousands were killed. To date, more than 720 000 people have fled to neighbouring Bangladesh.
We can also learn important lessons from that appalling tragedy. New Zealand’s response, at political and community levels, 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 Rwanda genocide in their sorrow.
But if we truly want to honour the memories of those killed in the genocide, 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 a definitive 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