Reflecting on the meaning of genocide in Rwanda and beyond, 30 years on

30 years after the extermination of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda, when does a mass massacre qualify as genocide or not? ©Shutterstock
30 years ago, Rwanda witnessed a horrific genocide. Together with our partner, the Observatoire des droits de l'homme au Rwanda (ODHR), we delve into the current situation in the country. We explore the efforts made regarding reparation, reconciliation, the fight against impunity, and the remaining challenges. We also asked human rights defenders from three partner or member organisations of our SOS-Torture Network in countries that have experienced mass killings – Burundi, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo – to reflect on why these tragic events have not been classified as genocide.

Rwanda's Laurent Munyandilikirwa has been living in exile in France since 2014, after having been involved in monitoring human rights violations in Rwanda and following trials of the Rwandan genocide. He is the President of the Observatoire des droits de l'homme au Rwanda (ODHR) and continues to fight against discrimination, injustice, and impunity.

30 years after the genocide, has Rwanda healed the deep wounds inflicted on communities?

Much has been done for the survivors, especially in justice, but only for them. National and international courts have tried and convicted the accused, a million cases have been heard, and funds have been set up to help the survivors. The construction of memorials has ensured that the past is not forgotten. However, the recognition of the victims remains partial, excluding the victims of other belligerents, particularly the Front Patriotique Rwandais. This is not the kind of impartial justice needed for reconstruction and reconciliation. The justice of the winners was satisfied at the expense of the interests of the people and the country.

What steps can we take to ensure that these tragedies never happen again?

Sadly, in Rwanda today, discrimination fuels tensions. Freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the opening of democratic space are violated. Political opposition is non-existent, associations are muzzled, and numerous killings, disappearances and unexplained arrests recall the beginning of the genocide. At present, people are crying out against discrimination, social inequality, injustice, hunger, and impunity. These situations jeopardise any guarantee of peace in the region.

The scale and planning of these massacres could have constituted the crime of genocide (Armel Niyongere, human rights lawyer - Burundi)

Burundi's Armel Niyongere, a human rights lawyer for many years, was disbarred in Bujumbura following his active campaign against the third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza and his work against serious human rights violations recognised by the United Nations. Sentenced to life imprisonment in February 2021, he has been living in exile in Belgium since 2015. President of Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture and Secretary General of SOS-Torture Burundi, he is a member of the General Assembly of the OMCT.

Do you think the international community should have declared the massacres in Burundi during the 12-year civil war, which resulted in 300,000 deaths, to be a genocide?

In Burundi, the way the crimes of genocide have been characterized has been exploited in several ways. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), set up in 2014, has been used by those in power to describe the crimes committed in a way that suits their political agenda. The scale and planning of these massacres could have constituted the crime of genocide. I agree with the UN Commission of Inquiry that the crimes of 2015 were crimes against humanity, including murder, imprisonment, torture, rape, and political and gender-based persecution.

Why did you get involved in defending human rights in your country, and what does this mean for you personally?

The current leaders are following the example set by those who teach ethnic hatred against the Tutsis. There's also ethnic cleansing in state institutions and the security and defense corps, the manipulation of history by divisionist teachers and the expropriation of Tutsi land. SOS-Torture Burundi has flagged these problems. My activism remains undiminished despite the consequences, including the exile of my colleagues and myself.

Over the past five years, there have been clear signs of the risk of genocide (Yared Hailemariam, human rights defender - Ethiopia)

Ethiopia's Yared Hailemariam is a long-standing human rights defender who was forced into exile following the repression of the 2005 elections. A founding member of the regional NGO DefendDefenders and director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Centre, he sits on the OMCT General Assembly.

The conflict in the Tigray region has killed more than 600,000 people, and other conflicts are ongoing in the country. Do you think there are signs of "genocide" in Ethiopia?

Over the past 30 years, the ethnic policies followed by the country have contributed mainly to triggering ethnic conflicts based on communities. Over the past five years, there have been clear signs of the risk of genocide, particularly in the northern region. Thousands of people have been targeted because of their religious or ethnic background. War crimes and crimes against humanity have also been committed. The Oromo, Tigrayan, and Amhara communities are both victims and persecutors on a massive scale. These massacres must be investigated further.

If you had to describe your hopes for the future of your country, on a personal level, as a human rights defender, in 3 words, what would you choose, and why?

ADWA is the place in Tigray where Ethiopia beat Italy, the colonial power. This was a massive moment in Ethiopian history when everyone fought for freedom. Adwa Victory Day is a national holiday in Ethiopia, celebrated on 2 March. This could be an excellent time to bring all Ethiopians together.

GOD: Ethiopia is a country where over 95% of the population is Christian or Muslim. People believe in the same God, regardless of their ethnic background. Churches or Mosques are the perfect place to teach people about humanity and unity.

HUMANITY: We should teach people to think about humankind before making decisions and acting against another human being.

The UN Mapping Report 2010, which documented serious crimes committed between March 1993 and June 2003, refers to acts of genocide (Henri Wembolua Otshudi Kenge, human rights lawyer - DRC)

Democratic Republic of Congo's Henri Wembolua Otshudi Kenge is a lawyer and President of the Alliance pour l'Universalité des Droits Fondamentaux (AUDF), with over 25 years of experience defending human rights. He is also a member of the SOS-Torture Litigators’ Group in Africa.

Despite the mass killings committed in the DRC over the last decades are not officially regarded as “genocide” under international law, how do the communities affected feel about what happened?

The United Nations Mapping Report 2010, which documented 617 serious crimes committed between March 1993 and June 2003, refers to acts of genocide or other serious crimes such as war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity. Due to a lack of political will at both national and international levels, the report's recommendations have never been acted upon, and the victims are still waiting for truth, reparation, and justice.

As a human rights defender, what are your hopes for the future of your country?

Genocide and other serious crimes, wherever they are committed, must be punished. The hope of victims in the DRC lies in speeding up the process of implementing transitional justice mechanisms, including mixed courts of Congolese and foreign judges.