Two professors at the University of East London (UEL) are urging world leaders to learn the lessons of the Rwandan genocide by taking decisive action to stop the current genocide being perpetrated by ISIS (Daesh) against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
Their comments come as nations around the world commemorate the International Day of Reflection on the Genocide in Rwanda, which was instituted by the United Nations as an annual event, held annually on April 7.
During a 100-day period between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were massacred – men, women, and children. Roughly 70 percent of the Tutsi population of Rwanda was wiped out. Thousands of Hutus were also killed for opposing the slaughter.
Speaking at the first Memorial Day on 7 April 2004, the then UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, said world leaders needed to acknowledge their responsibility for not having done more to prevent or stop the genocide.
“We must protect the rights of minorities, since they are genocide’s most frequent targets. We must attack the roots of violence and genocide: hatred, intolerance, racism, tyranny, and the dehumanising public discourse that denies whole groups of people their dignity and their rights.”
But have political leaders, national governments and international bodies really learned the lessons of the Rwanda genocide?
Excerpt from the 2014 testimony of Josephine Murebwayire, the lone survivor of the Ndera Petit Seminaire massacre.
Professor John Strawson, Co-Director of UEL’s Centre for Human Rights in Conflict, believes not.
“In Rwanda in 1994 and in ISIS-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria since 2014, the international community has refused to act to stop genocide. Yet this is an international legal obligation under the 1948 Genocide Convention. It requires states to ‘suppress the crime of genocide’. Instead, the world has looked the other way.”
Professor Strawson says that 22 years ago, as the Rwanda genocide began, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda refused to acknowledge the criminality that was taking place. “Much of the international community went along with this while the killing continued unimpeded,” he said.
“Only after six weeks did the UN admit that genocide was taking place. However, no one acted and the killing of the Tutsis continued over the summer.
“After the devastation, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and in 1998 it became the first international court to find a defendant, Taba commune mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, guilty of the crime of genocide. Although an important legal development, it was too late for the 800,000 victims.”
Professor Strawson says that despite the sorry record in Rwanda, the world is now repeating it with ISIS as it commits genocide against the Yazidi people.
On February 4 this year, the European Union passed a resolution officially recognising as genocide the crimes against humanity committed by Daesh against Yazidis, Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian, Melkites, and Armenian Christians, Turkmens, Shi’ites, Shabaks, Sabeans, Kaka’I, and Sunnis who do not agree with the ISIS interpretation of Islam. The US House of Representatives and the State Department have also recognised the genocide.
Since 2014, an estimated 5,000 Yazidis have been killed and at least 2,000 Yazidi girls and women have been forced into sex slavery. Professor Strawson said:
“Evidence of mass graves of men and the rape of Yazidi women – the latter chillingly recorded by Rukmini Callimachi in the New York Times as recently as March 12 – has been met with much hand-wringing in most capitals. “The ISIS cult has been allowed to perpetrate its crimes, despite being a relatively small force of no more than 30,000 fighters.
“Like the Tutsis in Rwanda 22 years ago, the Yazidis have been abandoned to their fate. If we want to honour the memory of Rwandan victims, it is time to act and stop the genocide against the Yazidis.”
Professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the University of East London, Giorgia Doná, lived in Rwanda for four years immediately after the genocide.
“When we talk about the Rwandan genocide, we think in terms of Hutu extremists killing Tutsi,” she said. But like the indirect victims of the Rwandan genocide – ordinary Rwandans killed because they opposed the killing, families of mixed ethnicity, and members of minority ethnic or religious groups, she says that the minorities under Daesh are at risk of being overlooked.
“The dominant narrative about ‘new wars’ between Daesh, Assad’s government, rebel forces, Russia and Western governments is leading to another example of forgotten people. The sad experiences of Yazidis, Sabeans, Christian minorities, and internally displaced people and refugees fleeing the atrocities might be passed over and forgotten”.
Daniel Blackman is a communications officer at the University of East London.