Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why Human Rights? And Where? Part II

After Lagos, from May 21-25 I was in Kigali, Rwanda. We were hosting a civil society workshop on the International Criminal Court, as well as organizing a judicial colloquium for the East African Magistrates and Judges Association. Arriving in Kigali was a complete culture shock. From Lagos, population of nearly 20 million people (Wikipedia says that the population is just under 8 million, but that is from 2006, and Lagos is the seventh fastest growing city in the world), to Kigali, population of less than 1 million.

Kigali is a beautiful city, nestled amongst the hilly terrain of Rwanda (the land of a thousand hills). Cars drive on the right-hand side of the road, at an acceptable speed, and even stop at traffic lights! That was pure bliss, after the chaos that is Lagos and Nairobi traffic. It's also an incredibly clean and well-kept city, with monthly 'clean up' days where people get together and clean up the entire city. Plus, plastic grocery bags are outlawed, which keeps a lot of litter to a minimum. I found it to be a pleasant and relaxing place.

In the background, though, one can understand why things are so orderly. There are armed guards and army officers every few hundred meters. We asked our cab driver to take 5 of us to our hotel, in his 4-seater car. He agreed, but was so nervous and anxious that he was literally praying the entire trip, in the hopes that the police or the army did not notice him breaking the law. There is a very real sense of militaristic order in Kigali, and while the Rwandan people that I met were all very soft-spoken and polite, there seemed to be an underlying sense of fear, as well.

This all makes sense in the context of Rwanda's history. You may have seen Hotel Rwanda, which was a good movie, but I had to opportunity to visit the Rwandan Genocide Memorial. In 100 days, from April-July 1994, nearly 1 million Rwandans were murdered. That was about 20% of the total population of Rwanda. There are better places to find out all of the facts of the Genocide (such as here), than my blog. The horrors of the genocide are still fresh, and although Rwanda has made significant strides in development since then, there is a real sense that making sure of 'never again' will take direct initiative by the government. Hence the presence of armed guards, and hence the presence of a very robust criminal law against genocide denial.

There are two things I wanted to mention about my experience at the memorial:

1. The scope and scale of the genocide is difficult to fathom. Killing that many people in that short a time frame is not easy to reconcile. I am a perennial optimist, and I believe the in kindness of strangers, but stories of neighbours, friends, and family turning against each other definitely shakes that belief. In fact, some of the stories, especially those of the murdered children, were saddening to some - one of the judges we went with was reduced to sobbing - but, for me, it was also infuriating. Dehumanizing someone to the point of murdering a defenceless child, let alone the rest of the men and women, is a psychological state that I cannot, on ANY level, understand. Thanks to the memorial, I now have a better understanding of what happened, and why certain events unfolded the way that they did, but I'm still left with the question: How could anyone do this?

2. The broader context of the genocide was a reminder about why I do the things I do. Colonial (Belgium especially) and Religious (Catholic) imperialism in Rwanda left an indelible mark on Rwandan society, culture and psychology. Then, after severely altering the make up of Rwandan society, they left the country to its own devices. After ethnic tensions started mounting, the United Nations started monitoring the situation. Then, when ethnic tension turned into ethnic cleansing, the United Nations pulled out its peacekeepers and the foreign (and local) dignitaries. The history of the Rwandan genocide, from an outsiders perspective, is a history of failure - a failure to understand a vibrant and rich culture, a failure to pay attention to conflict, a failure to effectively protect basic principles of human rights and democratic governance, a failure to mediate an ongoing dispute, and a failure to intervene in a massive scale violent crisis. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Lieutenant-General in charge of the UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda estimated that a contingent of 5,000 UN troops could have controlled and stopped the violence. Instead, they used 5,000 troops to evacuate ex-pats, while the UN General Assembly issued a resolution 'strongly condemning' the violence in Rwanda.

Eventually, the RPF came, without major assistance from the international community, and ended the genocide and the civil war. And Paul Kagame remains in power to this day.

My recollection and understanding of the Rwandan genocide is limited. With ongoing trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, new facts and more detail have been shed on the situation. Even though there is much more to this story than I know, the history of the genocide is still incomplete. I am sure that there are more complexities and horrors that will come to light, and if I am being perfectly honest, I'm not sure I want to learn more about it. Kofi Annan said that the UN's failure with Rwanda leaves everyone with "a feeling of bitter regret". I would think that the feeling hits a little deeper than that.

However, I'm left with lingering thoughts from both the Kigali experience, and what happened in Lagos:

Human rights don't spur violence. Human rights don't promote ignorance, or hatred, or dogmatism. But what do human rights do? By all accounts, they've generally been concise lines of text on documents that haven't really been of much use in the world's history. But Human Rights, as we know them - as universal, morally correct, and profoundly beneficial - are young. The UN Declaration on Human Rights was conceived after the second world war, and is going on 64 years old. No major global ideology or system of belief has managed to capture the hearts and mind of a massive amount of the global community within the lifespan of one human being.

I believe in human rights. I believe in the principles they espouse. I believe that they apply everywhere, at all times, to all people. I believe that they will lead to a peaceful, healthy, vibrant human community on Earth. I also believe that human rights have no use if they are not promoted, protected, and accepted in the everyday psyche of individuals. That requires work - intellectual work, political advocacy, and on-the-ground everyday work. I believe I can do that work. I think I've started, and I'll keep it up, tomorrow, the next day, and we'll see how far that belief can go. So far, it's taken me to Kenya, Nigeria, and Rwanda. It's looking like it will also take me to Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And judging from the news, I'm wondering if it will take me back home to Canada, too.

For me, Human Rights are a journey.

1 comment:

  1. In less optimistic fashion, I replace the supposed ignoring failure with the semantic failure: ‘Genocide is not occurring. Acts of genocide are being perpetrated. But, genocide is not occurring… (because if we use that “term”, then we would have a legal obligation to intervene.)’


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