20 Years After Rwanda, Have we Learned our Lesson?

April 11, 2014

Twenty years ago the world witnessed one of the most horrific acts of violence between countrymen in Rwanda. This week, the world is remembering the Rwandan genocide, an atrocity that claimed the lives of over 800,000 people in the span of three months.

In the 20 years since the genocide, Rwanda is continuing to rebuild its economy and institutions, as well as pursuing justice against perpetrators that fled after the violence. While Rwanda continues to make progress on increasing quality of life for Rwandans, the economy, and reconciliation efforts, the rest of the international community has fallen behind on grasping the gravity of preventing such a stain on human history.

Sadly, last week, Lebanon accepted its one-millionth Syrian refugee, and in the three years since the conflict began, over 100,000 Syrians have been killed. Since December, over 2,000 Muslims in the Central African Republic (CAR) have been killed and thousands more displaced in the latest bout of sectarian violence. In fact, the United Nations has warned that the CAR is heading toward a humanitarian disaster to the point that current sectarian violence between Christian and Muslim militias will end in genocide. In Burma, the United Nations recently raised an alarm over the systematic abuse of the Rohingya by the Thein Sein government that has left over 140,000 in displacement camps.

Former President Bill Clinton spoke about his regret not intervening in Rwanda saying, “If we'd gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost...it had an enduring impact on me.” Have we not learned the idea of prevention from these horrific lessons? Yes, the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board is a good first step in recognizing and strategizing to prevent mass atrocities and genocide; however, in addition to strategy, it needs to be paired with effective action.

The regrets of not acting faster have resounded throughout reflections on the anniversary. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, speaking to a crowd in Kigali, Rwanda said, “We must not be left to utter the words ‘never again,’ again and again…we could have done much more. We should have done much more.”

Since introduction in November 2013, House Resolution 418, condemning the abuses in Burma, has been waiting for a vote, and Secretary Kerry has recently come under questioning for not taking a more direct approach to end the violence in Syria. The U.S. has supported peacekeepers in CAR through vehicles and funding, but in all these conflicts, violence continues. Despite these efforts, we wonder: in 20 years, will we be lamenting over the fact that we could have done more?

The genocide in Rwanda has left an indelible footprint on the importance of intervention in the face of human rights abuses. There remains the hope that in light of this anniversary, reflections of the past will guide us to action to prevent further momentous crimes from occurring under our watch.

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