Fighting Genocide Denial: Why It Is Important

Posted: October 27, 2010 in Genocide Denial
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By Tom Ndahiro

During the genocide of 1994, Gaspard Gahigi was the editor in chief of the infamous RTLM radio. Forced to seek sanctuary in eastern Zaire after the defeat of their military and political allies, Gahigi and his colleagues started a newspaper in exile called Amizero, ostensibly as part of the humanitarian needs of the refugees.

In reality, the over-arching aim of the new publication was to sustain the genocidal impetus which had just killed over a million people.  The first item on the agenda was to deny that what had taken place in Rwanda between April and July 1994 was genocide.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) on November 30 1994, Gahigi dismissed the charges that had been levelled against him with respect to his activities at RTLM. “We did not incite anyone to kill. But there was a war time against the backdrop of an ethnic conflict.” Saying that RTLM was no longer broadcasting, he added: “But we have all the equipment. We are not excluding the possibility of broadcasting again under a different name because the fight has not finished.”

And indeed the last 16 years have witnessed an extraordinary campaign, by Rwandans as well as foreigners, to “explain”, that is to reject the reality of the genocide, or at best to minimize, excuse and justify the horrors of 1994.

There was no caveat from AFP, let alone an editorial commentary about Gahigi’s denial of genocide. He took cover under the well-intentioned, but easily abused, press doctrine of “neutrality”, which insists that both sides of an argument must be heard.

But, there are not two sides to genocide, in the sense that civilized society does not accept that the genocidal killer should have a voice equal to that of his victim or the person who was fortunate enough to survive his plan of extermination. This is a standard that is embraced in principle in Europe, but which is ignored in the case of the Rwandan genocide.

Andrew Mwenda, a Ugandan journalist based in the United States, recently made this comment about Victoire Ingabire’s efforts to brush the genocide aside. “If a politician in America denied the Jewish Holocaust; it would be their last day in politics. Every political party would denounce them; mainstream media would shun them, and most civic associations would follow suit.”

This is as it should be. It is a matter of Western consensus that denying the acts of the Nazis against the Jews and the other minorities they sought to destroy is tantamount to supporting the policies and practices of the Nazis.

Mwenda is equally correct, when he rejects, the idea of equivalence, between the sometimes brutal War actions of the Allies compared to the concentration camps of the Germans.  Thus, he goes on to say, by this test, it is a vile comparison to argue that there is a moral equivalence between the RPF which sought to stop the genocide, and the people who set it in motion.

The vituperative Victoire Ingabire’s goal, both before she announced her presidential ambitions and came to Rwanda, and since then, is to convince outsiders that what Rwanda experienced in 1994 was an old-fashioned “war” that itself came out of an “ethnic” struggle. Should the world allow itself to be duped, then the killers who remain in the Congo and abroad will succeed in disguising their genocidal aims as the legitimate pursuit of political interests!

The reasons for fighting the denial of genocide in Rwanda, as elsewhere, are many and varied. To tackle prevention of genocide seriously, it is imperative, first, to accept its occurrence, its causes and the severity of its consequences. A stubborn refusal to acknowledge that it even took place can only cast a shadow over all our futures, for it emboldens the politics of extermination in the region and elsewhere.

Amri Karekezi was one of the first genocide prisoners and local government officials to confess, as early as 1995, and to give a full account of how the genocide was planned and implemented. In 1994, he was councillor of sector Biryogo in Kigali. It is not possible, he argues, for us Rwandese to heal ourselves without admitting the precise nature of the catastrophe which befell us in 1994.

Karekezi said: “The ideology of genocide consists in the first place in the refusal to recognize the genocide. A lot of people prefer to use expressions like massacres, the war, the violence, what happened etc… The failure to acknowledge is in itself an obstacle. To continue to deny the genocide of the Tutsis has unfortunate consequences because you cannot heal if you don’t recognize that something is wrong.”

According to the 2005 UN Resolution on the Holocaust Remembrance, it is critical to keep recalling the Holocaust in order to prevent further acts of genocide. It also pointed out that ignoring the historical fact of those terrible events increased the risk they will be repeated.

Denial of genocide is intended to deepen the profound hurt and injury which survivors have already endured, to isolate them and to silence them as witnesses. The perpetrators of the1994 genocide against the Tutsis have been relentless in their efforts to denigrate the men, women and children who eluded them. And no wound is greater than the persistent argument that their families, friends and neighbours perished overnight, yes, but in an “ethnic war.”

Last, but not least, denial kills memory.  As Milan Kundera so aptly put it, “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”  To seek the power to exterminate an entire people is the most dangerous of political quests. This is understood in Europe, to the extent that in 2007 the European Union was already giving consideration to criminalizing genocide denial, racism and xenophobia.

Europe recognizes the importance of upholding and protecting press freedom for a democracy. But free speech in Europe does not give anyone the right to call for the physical destruction of a people. Europe is also particularly tough against Holocaust denial. The countries, and, I suspect, that it is by no means a complete list, which have laws limiting speech rights when it comes to Holocaust denial include: Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain and Switzerland.

A good example is the Gayssot Act of 1990 in France which makes it an offence to speak or write denying the existence of the Holocaust or of gas asphyxiation of Jews in gas chambers by Nazis.

“The denial of the Holocaust by authors who qualify themselves as revisionists could only be qualified as an expression of racism and the principal vehicle of anti-Semitism.”

“The denial of the genocide of the Jews during World War Two fuels debates of a profoundly anti-Semitic character, since it accuses the Jews of having fabricated themselves the myth of their extermination.”

During the 2006 April commemoration of the genocide, the then Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation, Armand De Decker, called on the Belgian Parliament to make it a criminal offence to deny the 1994 Rwanda genocide, using a 1995 law passed in Belgium which punished denial of the Holocaust. The trigger was a demonstration in Brussels on 6 April 2006 in which participants argued that there had been no genocide in Rwanda. “Freedoms of expression and thought are inalienable rights, but no one should be allowed to re-write history”, commented a statement issued by De Becker’s Ministry.

Europe has shown us a variety of measures and strategies that can be used to combat Holocaust denial. Our own history teaches us both the importance and the urgency of acting similarly with regard to the denial of the Rwandan Tutsi genocide.   In Europe, those who refute the attempted destruction of the Jewish people often disguise their agenda in historical revisionism.  They want to appear to be neutral academics, men and women who are merely searching for the truth. Those who cast doubt on the Rwandan genocide have their own coded language and metaphors to lend their message an air of legitimacy.

If we are indeed to accept genocide as a crime against humanity, which we must, then the same standards must apply, irrespective of wider political considerations, as De Becker had intended.  What happened in Rwanda should not be treated by the world differently from the Holocaust on the basis that Rwanda is a small far away country without resources whose genocide, therefore, somehow becomes of secondary importance.  It is the last genocide of the twentieth century.  It was driven by the same impulses which killed millions in that bloodiest of centuries, impulses which were at heart racialist, exclusivist and which sought “purity.” To deny the true dimensions of the Rwandan tragedy of 1994, to label it a war, to describe it as an ethnic struggle, to bring up the double genocide thesis, is to take a stand against humanity and its determination to prevent future genocides, anywhere in the world.

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